A few days after Thanksgiving, Mississippi voters will either elect a woman to Congress for the first time or send an African American to the U.S Senate for the first time since Reconstruction.
Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, the incumbent, will face Mike Espy, a Democrat and former cabinet secretary in a Nov. 27 runoff election to determine who will fill the remainder of the seat vacated by the retirement of Sen. Thad Cochran earlier this year.
For weeks, pundits and polls predicted the matchup between Hyde-Smith and Espy, both of whom previously held agriculture-related posts — as state ag commissioner and U.S. agriculture secretary, respectively.
Those predictions held up with each candidate receiving roughly 40 percent of the vote, while far-right challenger, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who nearly unseated Cochran four years ago, captured around 17 percent.
McDaniel, who led a bitter campaign that sought to cast Hyde-Smith, a former Democratic lawmaker, as insufficiently conservative, conceded his loss and urged his supporters to unite against Espy.
“They won this one fair and square. It’s not like it was in ‘14,” McDaniel told his supporters in Laurel, adding of Sen. Hyde-Smith: “I don’t believe she’s the conservative for this state. But I can tell you unequivocally that Mike Espy has no business being anywhere near the United States Senate. We unite now under Trump’s umbrella. We unite now to fight for his party, and we have to win this battle for the state of our country.”
McDaniel’s supporters seemed to get the message.
“My opinion is that she’s an establishment that slowly gives up ground, in the same direction as the Democrat Party. But slower is better than wide open,” said James Charles Smith, a McDaniel supporter from Webster County.
David Taylor of Laurel was more hesitant, but he said he’d do it.
“You know sometimes you have to vote for the less of two evils. I voted for Chris McDaniel today because I believed in him. I believed in his platforms,” Taylor said. “But I will vote for the less of two evils if that’s the only choice that I have.”
Meanwhile, Espy’s watch party in Jackson was exuberant.
The roughly 300 people held out hope for most of the night that their candidate could win a majority Tuesday and avoid a runoff. But about 9:30 p.m. Espy and his family came to the stage to a large roar as he was introduced as “the next senator for the great state of Mississippi.”
But by then it was obvious that he would have to continue the election fight to earn that moniker.
Espy told the crowd his new chant instead of “I like Mike” would be “fight, fight, fight.”
While Espy and most of his family stood on stage, his nephew, Chuck Espy, mayor of Clarksdale, stood in the back of the Jackson Hilton conference room and said “Who knows, maybe this will be the next great chapter in Mississippi history,” referring to when his uncle won the 2nd District seat in 1986, becoming the first African American in the modern era elected to the U.S. House from Mississippi.
“You stood with me before. Are you going to stand with me again?” he asked to a crowd that gave a loud cheer. “That is what I thought.”
Espy promised to run an aggressive runoff campaign, saying he would stress his desire to improve health care in the state. As he has stressed in recent weeks, Espy said he would work to ensure people with pre-existing conditions have medical coverage and work to make sure that rural hospitals have the funds to remain open.
As Espy and his family left the stage, “Love Train” by the O’Jays played . He stopped to talk and take photos with numerous supporters.
Jackson real estate agent Carla Allen, said she was hoping Espy would win a majority vote Tuesday, “but we are appreciative of a runoff. I think he is the man for the job. Health care is so important at this point in our lives.”
Hyde-Smith, who also held her watch party in Jackson, echoed McDaniel’s call for Republican unity.
“We’ve got to unite, we’ve got to come together, we’ve got to get all the conservatives in this state,” she said, adding that “anyone who supported another candidate to join our team.”
Hyde-Smith was flanked by Gov. Phil Bryant, who appointed her to fill Cochran’s seat on an interim basis, and U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, who was also successful in his reelection bid against state Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, by a margin of 59 percent to 39 percent.
Just after 9:30 p.m., Baria announced to the crowd — which by that point — had ballooned to over 40 supporters that he had tried calling Wicker twice to concede, even though he felt uncomfortable doing so with his “beloved Gulf Coast counties” not yet fully reporting.
Baria – who had never run in a state-wide race before – said the most eye-opening part of his campaign was listening to the concerns of Mississippians who said they had long felt ignored by the entrenched conservative politicians. When he talks to Wicker, Baria says he plans to ask the senator to “stand up to Trump,” especially when the president disparages women.
Both Baria and his law firm partner Brandon Jones emphasized the work the campaign had done to bolster the infrastructure of future Democratic campaigns.
The campaign’s social media strategies and networks of local officials – everyone from county supervisors to clerks to council members – can easily be handed to a candidate in 2019, like house representative Jay Hughes, who has already announced a run for lieutenant governor, Baria told Mississippi Today after his concession speech.
“I’m going to be happy to hand off to Jay Hughes what we’ve done, sit down and consult with him or work with him any way that he wants us to work with him,” Baria said. “He can take what we’ve done and he can build it out. He can scale it up.”
Contributing: Michelle Liu.