Is the Mississippi Senate seat really up for grabs?

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In 2012, in his re-election bid, President Barack Obama garnered 562,949 votes in Mississippi — more than the combined total garnered by Republicans Cindy Hyde-Smith and Chris McDaniel in the Nov. 6 Senate special election.

What does that mean?

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Republican interim Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith speaks to reporters after her watch party at the Westin Jackson Tuesday, November 6, 2018.

Probably nothing as it relates to Tuesday’s Senate special election runoff where Hyde-Smith, the interim incumbent senator, faces Democrat Mike Espy.

But that Obama turnout from 2012 does provide evidence that under the right circumstances Espy could garner enough votes to defeat Hyde-Smith.

“This is a turnout election,” Espy told a crowd of supporters who were being urged to help transport voters to the polls on Tuesday.

In political lexicon, there is perhaps no greater cliché than the election outcome comes down “to turnout.”

All elections, of course do — come down to turnout.

But the dynamics of the unusual special election make the issue of turnout more important than it is for most Mississippi elections.

Nate Silver, the acclaimed statistician, who runs the FiveThirtyEight blog, tweeted recently, “I’m not sure what to make of the Mississippi Senate runoff, but it’s one of those races where Democrats both need their turnout to be very high and GOP to be very low.”

What the turnout will be for the unprecedented Tuesday after Thanksgiving election for a Senate seat in Mississippi is anybody’s guess. There has never previously been one.

Nov. 6 saw a record midterm turnout of about 900,000 voters – levels matching turnout for gubernatorial elections, but less than the more than 1 million Mississippians who vote in presidential elections.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Mike Espy takes photos with supporters during his watch party at the Hilton Jackson on County Line Road Tuesday, November 6, 2018. 

For Espy, who is vying to be the first African American elected to the Senate from Mississippi, black voter turnout probably must come close to matching the presidential year levels.

Will recent gaffes by Hyde-Smith where she spoke of being on the front row of a public hanging if invited by a supporter or while at Mississippi State University joking about suppressing liberal voters “at other schools” help drive that African American turnout? A Facebook post from 2014 of Hyde-Smith when she was agriculture commissioner decked out in a Confederate hat with a rifle at the home of Jefferson Davis – now a Biloxi museum operated by the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans – also has not gone unnoticed. Davis was the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

“It gives African Americans another reason to go to the polls,” Michael Steele, an African American and former chair of the Republican National Committee, said during a cable news interview on MSNBC.

But if a high African American turnout is coupled with a high turnout among white voters, that still might spell doom for Espy. Currently the state has the most polarized electorate in the nation with at least 90 percent of white Mississippians voting Republican and more than 90 percent of African Americans voting Democrat.

Espy is trying to make the case that the Hyde-Smith comments are harmful to the state as a whole in hopes of increasing his support with white voters.

“Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith made thoughtless comments that harmed our state, hurt our jobs and hurt our economy,” he said recently.

While Hyde-Smith has apologized for the remarks, she blasted her critics saying, “This comment was twisted, was turned into a weapon to be used against me.”

Hyde-Smith and Espy are running for the seat long-time Sen. Thad Cochran retired from earlier this year for health reasons. Hyde-Smith was appointed in the interim by Gov. Phil Bryant.

In the Nov. 6 election, Hyde-Smith, with about 41 percent of the vote, led Espy by about 8,000 voters. In Mississippi, special elections require a runoff if no candidate garners a majority vote.