Mike Espy garnered enough votes Tuesday in the U.S. Senate special election to live to fight another day.
There are multiple unknowns of how that fight will be carried out during the next three weeks between Espy and interim Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith. Espy placed a close second to Hyde-Smith with both hovering around 41 percent. The bulk of the remainder of the votes Tuesday – 16 percent – went to Hyde-Smith’s fellow Republican Chris McDaniel.
No doubt, Hyde-Smith, as she has been through the election cycle, will be the clear favorite to win the Nov. 27 runoff election against Espy, who in 1986 became the first African American from Mississippi elected to the U.S. House since the 1800s and later served as the secretary of agriculture in the Clinton administration.
Tuesday’s turnout of more than 850,000 voters was a record for a mid-term election. With the high turnout, some had speculated that Espy, a viable African American candidate, could generate support among Democratic voters similar to what Democrats receive in Mississippi during presidential years. For instance, if Espy had received votes equivalent to what Hillary Clinton received in 2016, he would have won Tuesday without a runoff.
But Danny Blanton, a spokesperson for Espy said, “We’ve always suspected this would be a two-step process.”
Based on the fact that the Hyde-Smith campaign had a runoff commercial on television Wednesday morning indicated that it too anticipated a runoff.
Melissa Scallan, a spokesperson for Hyde-Smith, said, “The senator will be traveling to all parts of the state during the next three weeks to talk to voters and encouraging them to vote on Nov. 27.” She added the Senate might be in session during part of that time requiring her to be in Washington, D.C., instead of campaigning.
Blanton said, “Secretary Espy will continue doing what he’s been doing all along – meeting with voters all across the state and offering real solutions to real problems facing all Mississippians. Voters have seen that he is the only candidate who is discussing the issues important to them, and more significant is he’s the only candidate with the experience to know how to address those issues.
“And he has been the only candidate to guarantee voters that he will represent them, not a political party or any particular individual. He will put Mississippi first. He will continue to be the only candidate to do that.”
Dr. Marty Wiseman, a political scientist and former director of the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute of Government, said if the Nov. 27 runoff election had been for control of the Senate interest similar to a presidential year might be generated.
“You would have had reporters from all over covering the race,” he said. “Of course, unfortunately for the Democrats, interest on the Republican side would have been high, too.”
Republicans won enough seats Tuesday to bolster their majority regardless of what happens in the Mississippi runoff.
Based on past runoffs, the candidate who can match his or her vote total from the first election will likely win on Nov. 27. In most instances, less voters return to the polls for runoff elections, though, not always.
In the contentious U.S. Senate Republican primary between Cochran and McDaniel in 2014, 382,221 voted in the runoff – 63,326 more than voted in the first election.
Under Mississippi election law, runoffs are required in special elections and party primary contest if no candidate garners a majority in the first election.
“It will take a monumental effort” for Espy to generate the turnout to win the runoff, Wiseman said. Generating turnout for Republicans is less difficult because there are more Republican than Democratic voters in Mississippi.
But Wiseman and others pointed out this will be an unusual election with numerous unknowns.
First of all, the election will be the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. How will the holiday impact the turnout?
In addition, there is at least some concern amongst Republicans about how will the McDaniel voters react. Many in the Tea Party movement who support McDaniel were upset with what they perceived as a concerted effort by the Republican establishment in 2014 to defeat McDaniel in his race against Cochran. Many of his supporters also were upset that Gov. Phil Bryant selected Hyde-Smith – a former Democratic state senator from Brookhaven who changed parties to run and win the state agriculture commissioner post – instead of McDaniel to replace Cochran in the interim. Cochran stepped down in March for health reasons.
“Our focus is going to be on unifying the party and the conservative voters in Mississippi so that we can continue the progress made in the state and the country,” said Scallan. “We also want to encourage people to vote in the Nov. 27 runoff because it is the Tuesday after Thanksgiving and this will be the only statewide race on the ballot.”
When final numbers are completed, it is likely that the total turnout from Tuesday will be close to 900,000 – compared to 631,858 in the 2014 mid-term.
It was a good night in general for Mississippi Republicans. Republicans easily maintained their hold of three of the state’s four congressional districts.
And incumbent Sen. Roger Wicker, a Tupelo Republican, easily won re-election with 57.8 percent of the vote compared to 39.2 percent for Democratic challenger David Baria, a state House member from Bay St. Louis.
Interestingly, Baria, who was not as well funded as fellow Democrat Espy, received close to the same number of votes. As of Wednesday afternoon, Baria had garnered 342,905 votes to 358,752 for Espy.
Contributing: Larrison Campbell