Members of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus will begin a statewide tour later this month to increase voter enthusiasm – particularly in the African American community – in advance of the Nov. 6 election.

“We have a once in a lifetime opportunity in Mississippi to elect two Democratic senators, one being an African American,” said state Rep. Sonya Williams Barnes, D-Gulfport, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, who recently announced the statewide tour.

It is no secret that for Democrats Mike Espy and David Baria to win the two Senate elections on Nov. 6 they will need historically high turnout in the African American community and among millennials. Even with a strong turnout, they still would need higher than normal support of white voters to win, according to a Mississippi Today analysis done earlier this year.

Meanwhile, a slugfest between U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and state Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, for a spot in a runoff with Espy is likely to rally the GOP faithful of varying ideological stripes.

The two Republican incumbents, Roger Wicker and Hyde-Smith, are running with the knowledge that Mississippi has not elected a Democratic U.S. senator since 1982 when Sen. John Stennis won his seventh term by defeating future governor Haley Barbour of Yazoo City in the general election. Six years later Stennis opted not to seek re-election, leading to the election of Republican Trent Lott and to the Republican hold on the two Mississippi Senate seats.

Politicos say 2018 will likely not be any different with Wicker and Hyde-Smith winning re-election by comfortable margins. But Democrats are holding out hope – in part because of unusual circumstances this year.

First, there are two Senate elections because of the retirement in March of long-time Sen. Thad Cochran for health reasons. Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith, commissioner of agriculture and commerce, to fill the post until the Nov. 6 special election where she is being challenged by Espy, McDaniel and Tobey Bartee, a Gautier Democrat. In the regularly scheduled election, Baria – a state House member from Bay St. Louis – is challenging Wicker.

Second, Democrats are hopeful because Espy is a historic figure in Mississippi politics as the first African American elected to the U.S. House since the 1800s, and because he demonstrated the ability to grow his support among white voters during his three elections to Congress. He later served as secretary of agriculture in the Bill Clinton administration.

In addition, some evidence indicates more voter enthusiasm – fueled at least in part by controversies surrounding President Donald Trump – than in the typical so-called mid-term election where the president or other statewide officials, such as governor, are not on the ballot in Mississippi.

Andrew Revall, a Millsaps College student from New Orleans, said he has registered and plans to vote in Mississippi on Nov. 6.

“This is my first time to vote,” he said after a recent question and answer event Baria held at the Jackson-based school. “Freshmen and sophomores did not get to have a say when President Trump was elected and many of us are looking forward to being able to vote this time.”

Another Millsaps student, Ian Taylor, said he already has voted absentee back home on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

“I was fired up about voting this year,” he said. “I feel young people are more enthusiastic about voting.”

In pivotal GOP moment, Dems look to capitalize

The special election took on a new tone recently when several key political operatives working the U.S. Senate special election buzzed shortly after a secretly recorded video of Sen. Hyde-Smith hit the web.

The video, which shows Hyde-Smith discussing with constituents a strategy to avoid debating her conservative Republican challenger McDaniel so as to not elevate his platform, was sent to several political reporters in the state by a paid staffer of the McDaniel campaign.

“Right now, my opponent does not have enough money to get on TV and my guys are saying that’s like handing him a $200,000 campaign donation because he’s way down in the polls,” Hyde-Smith says in the video. “He’s wanting the TV time.”

Surrogates for Hyde-Smith and political operatives in Mississippi called reporters afterward to steer focus back to issues and Hyde-Smith’s track record. But the damage was done. Newspapers and local TV news broadcasts across the state featured Hyde-Smith’s comments that highlighted a narrative McDaniel has been pushing for weeks: That Hyde-Smith is scared to debate him.

McDaniel capitalized on the moment, posting several times to his Facebook page and energizing his base of supporters.

Hyde-Smith’s campaign declined to elaborate on the video but later highlighted an endorsement they received from President Donald Trump, taking care to point out that McDaniel had not received the endorsement.

“I think this is a pivotal moment of this campaign,” McDaniel told Mississippi Today. “To see her deceiving the people of our state is appalling. Frankly, I believe it’s disqualifying. If she can’t stand in front of people and debate, what makes us think she’ll ever debate on our behalf in Washington?”

But the video wasn’t the only blow the Hyde-Smith campaign would suffer. Campaign finance reports hit the web showing that Espy raised $1.2 million between July 1 and September 30 – more than Hyde-Smith’s $1.1 million raised in the same reporting period.

The moment marked the first time in Mississippi’s modern political history that a minority party Senate candidate outraised the majority incumbent in any reporting period.

With a sense of momentum and half a million dollars in hand, Espy will roll out his full campaign strategy in the coming days.

“While they’re duking it out, we’re engaging voters,” said Richard McDaniel, field director for the Espy campaign. “It’s a continued effort to build on what was already here from several groups who had already done good work in the state. It’s ensuring we know where our pockets of supporters are, doing outreach and letting elected officials know what the gameplan is, and explaining our game plan to victory.”

Espy received a $5,000 donation from the Congressional Black Caucus in the third quarter, according to the finance report.

Both Baria and Espy spent much of last week in the Delta, where a high voter turnout is crucial to their longshot candidacies. Both spoke at the annual Washington County Democratic Executive Committee’s Beans and Greens Dinner, which had an attendance of about 400.

Then the next day, Espy was endorsed by the Congressional Black Caucus at an event in Greenville attended by Reps. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss; Cedric Richmond, D-La.; and Terri Sewell, D-Ala. Richmond is chair of the Black Caucus and Sewell is credited with playing a key role in Democrat Doug Jones’ upset victory earlier this year in an Alabama special Senate election.

“I’m pleading for some help. And as they say, with Mike Espy, help is on the way,” Thompson said at the Greenville event. “Nov. 6th is right around the corner. The help is there. All we have to do is go to the polls, and we can get it done. I look forward to continuing to work to make sure that Mike Espy is a U.S. senator.”

Richard McDaniel – no relation to the Ellisville state senator – is part of a team of high profile politicos Espy has hired to work his campaign. He works for the Washington-based Peter Damon Group, founded by Darren Peters, a 2016 adviser of Hillary Clinton. Espy paid the Peter Damon Group nearly $330,000 for field consulting in the third quarter of 2018, the finance report shows.

“We’re treating the black vote like it truly should be treated: Like it matters,” Richard McDaniel said. “We’re investing the resources and time to show that your vote matters, but also to show what’s at stake in this election and what it really means for their communities.”

Consultants who worked on the campaign of Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, who defeated Republican Roy Moore, have been sough out during the current election cycle. Credit: John Bazemore, AP

Espy has also hired Joe Trippi, who was a senior adviser for Alabama Sen. Doug Jones’ 2017 race while several in-state political operatives who have worked successful campaigns in Mississippi also received large checks from Espy’s campaign last quarter.

Registration uptick

Voter registration numbers compiled by the Secretary of State’s office seem to fuel the theory that voter enthusiasm is higher than normal.

From Sept. 1 through the voter registration deadline on Oct. 8, 23,301 people filed to either register or to update their voter registration information, primarily because of a change of address. During the same time period in the 2014 mid-term elections, 10,271 registered and in 2010, 13,171 registered.

But by contrast, in the 2016 presidential election, 44,440 registered during the same time period and in the 2012 presidential year 65,323 registered during the same time period. In total, 1.86 million Mississippians now are registered to vote.

If Espy and Baria are going to get that strong African American turnout, it will come primarily, but not solely, from the Mississippi Delta and from the Jackson area.

“They don’t like Trump,” said Rep. Credell Calhoun, D-Jackson. “Black people are going to vote against Trump. And the candidates are campaigning pretty hard. They don’t have enough money, but they are campaigning.”

Calhoun added that radio advertising and other presence on radio stations will be critical to their success in the final days of the campaign. “You are going to have to turn out voters in Jackson for the Democrat to win.”

In the Delta, Rep. Abe Hudson, D-Shelby, said, “Right now, in my particular county, a lot of people have registered to vote with their clerk.”

In Washington County, Circuit Clerk Barbara Ester-Parker said the number of new registrations seem high, particularly among young people in her county – one of the more populous Delta counties.

Rep. Charles Young Jr., D-Meridian Credit: Gil Ford Photography

“It is going to depend on the next two weeks,” said Rep. Charles Young, D-Meridian. “Democrats must have a strong get-out-the-vote effort in each county.” He said that will take individualized planning in each county to ensure people have transportation to the polls. Plus, he said people not only need to be informed that they need a government-issued photo identification, such as a drivers license or student identification, but also must be informed that they can vote without that ID as long as they return to the circuit clerk’s office within three days to present identification.

Based on the latest campaign finance filings, Espy, who said he raised $1.17 million during the third quarter of the year, should have the funds needed to coordinate get-out-the-vote efforts.

Otis Clark of Jackson, retired from the state Department of Environmental Quality, voiced a cautionary note for Democrats. He said  too many young people are not registered to vote. “And that is a problem. People before my time sacrificed so much for the right to vote,” he said

While it is too late to register people now, Williams Barnes said she believes that by the time the Legislative Black Caucus finishes it tour, in cooperation with local officials, that interest in the Nov. 6 election will be high for those who are registered. Although the last day to register for the Nov.6 election has passed, people can register at their circuit clerks office or via mail by Oct. 29 to vote in the potential runoff Nov. 27.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.

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, 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.