OXFORD – Just minutes before a live interview on the MSNBC television show “Morning Joe,” U.S. Senate candidate Mike Espy sipped coffee and straightened his jacket as he watched the segment before his on a backstage screen.

“Yeah, I do get nervous sometimes,” Espy told a reporter backstage when asked about the pressure of live television. “You want to get it right.”

Espy’s 10-minute interview brought his platform and his candidacy into the living rooms of hundreds of thousands of Americans who make Morning Joe one of the most watched cable morning shows. A YouTube clip of Espy’s interview had garnered 22,000 views by Sunday night, which doesn’t include tens of thousands of views by those who watched the show live or on the MSNBC website.

“I hope that my race will show that things are so dysfunctional and cynical and chaotic,” Espy said on air. “(People are) so tired of the reality show, and they’ll remember me as a 30-year-old who did things (when elected to Congress in 1986) … I’m keeping my head down. We’re in the bushes getting every vote we can. This vote goes through the African American community, but we also have to have enough crossover votes to win.”

The show’s taping in Oxford served as perhaps a turning point for the otherwise quiet Senate races, which have remained relatively off-the-radar in Mississippi and nationally. It also served as a political and financial pitch for three candidates who have raised considerably less money than the Republican incumbents they are challenging (the two Republican senators declined invitations to appear on the show).

Both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats are up for grabs on Nov. 6, and one of those seats is expected to be decided three weeks later in a “jungle primary” runoff — a rare political moment that has started to capture the imagination of national media and politicos because of its monumental implications.

After Sen. Thad Cochran retired in April, Gov. Phil Bryant appointed former state agriculture commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith to the Senate. Hyde-Smith, who has served since April, is running in a special election against Espy, anti-establishment Republican Chris McDaniel and little-known Democratic candidate Tobey Bartee.

If no single candidate garners 50 percent of the vote on Nov. 6, the top two vote getters will square off three weeks later to decide who takes the seat. With experts predicting close national midterms that could potentially swing control of the Senate from Republicans to Democrats, a Mississippi runoff on Nov. 27 could decide the next chapter of American politics.

“… There is a real possibility that the Senate on election day (Nov. 6) could be split 50-50,” the show’s host Joe Scarborough told Mississippi Today on Friday. “And so you then will have the runoff three weeks after election day, and whoever wins the state of Mississippi will control the United States Senate. That’s pretty incredible. And the fact again that Mississippi could even be in play really says something about where we are.”

A few minutes after Espy went on the show, McDaniel re-introduced himself to the nation on air. The YouTube video of his interview had surpassed 80,000 views by Sunday night.

“We are principled conservatives, and we have been for some time,” McDaniel said. “We have to learn to fight. Our party has not been the courageous party they have been … My concern is my party has moved away from those traditions (of Presidents Reagan, Goldwater and Taft). We’re trying to re-impose those traditions and save the platform. The establishment doesn’t seem so inclined to save the platform. We’re here to stop the establishment.”

U.S. Senate Democratic candidate David Baria speaks to media after delivering his speech during the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss. Thursday, August 2, 2018. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

David Baria, the Democrat challenging incumbent Republican Sen. Roger Wicker in the regularly scheduled Senate race, also interviewed live on the show. His YouTube clip was watched more than 32,000 times by Sunday night.

“There is an enthusiasm that we have on the Democratic side of the aisle for the first time in my adult life,” Baria said. “Folks are ready for change in Mississippi. For 30 years, we’ve sent the same group of people to Washington we get the same results. I think Mississippians are ready to turn the corner and make some changes … I think Mississippi is ready for someone like me.”

Hyde-Smith and Wicker declined invitations from the show’s producers.

Several times during the three hour show, hosts Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski and Willie Geist discussed the possibility that a Nov. 27 runoff for the special U.S. Senate election could decide the Senate majority. Political analysts and Mississippi natives Eddie Glaude and Elise Jordan also sat on the show’s panel for several segments.

In an interview before a Friday evening event hosted by Mississippi Today, Scarborough and Brzezinski discussed the importance of taping the show from Oxford.

“There’s a possibility of having a black United States senator in Mississippi, and then you’ve already got a Democrat in Alabama, which hasn’t happened in a quarter of a century. That would be remarkable,” said Scarborough, himself a former congressman from Florida. “That would be the revolution of sorts for Southern politics. I think more importantly, it would send a message across the world that the United States and even the Deep South has decided to send a message to Donald Trump.”

Editor’s note: The conversation Friday evening with “Morning Joe” hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski along with author Jon Meacham at the Ford Center on the campus of Ole Miss was a fundraiser for Mississippi Today.

Adam Ganucheau

Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.

Kayleigh Skinner

Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Skinner most recently served as deputy managing editor before assuming the role of managing editor. Kayleigh has a bachelor’s in journalism from the School of Journalism and New Media from the University of Mississippi. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.