Al Rojas fills out a ballot at Eudora Welty Library in Jackson during the Mississippi Senate runoff election Tuesday, November 27, 2018.

Mississippi Democrats, who have not had a lot to cheer about in recent years, will enter the pivotal 2019 statewide elections on a relative high note – based on the showing of Mike Espy in the U.S. Senate special election.

The office of Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann recently released certified results from the Nov. 6 first election and Nov. 27 special election held to replace long-time U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran who resigned in April for health reasons.

Those certified results show the Democrat actually performed better than what was reported on election night and the days immediately after the election.

According to final, certified numbers, Espy garnered 46.4 percent of the vote on Nov. 27 in the special election — the largest percentage of votes of any Democrat running for national statewide office in Mississippi — president or U.S. senator — since 1982.

Despite the positive showing by Espy, still, no Democrat, not named Hood — as in Attorney General Jim Hood — has been elected statewide in Mississippi since 2003. Hood, a Houston resident, will be trying in 2019 to convert the success he has had running for attorney general to a race for governor.

State Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, who is running for lieutenant governor in 2019, said he was encouraged by the results of the recent Senate special election.

“We started digesting and analyzing the data from the Senate special election and runoff before the sun rose the following day and think it is some of the most powerful information that we can possibly have,” said Hughes. “It tells us a story of a lot more Mississippians who are willing to vote for the person rather than the party.”

Hughes said he already is campaigning every day and believes he is capable of finding the less than 4 percent that Espy did not receive to win the statewide campaign for lieutenant governor.

Austin Barbour, a Republican political consultant and commentator who works both in the state and on national campaigns, said he would not read too much into the 2018 results as it related to upcoming 2019 elections.

“The Democrats had a good candidate (for U.S. Senate) for the first time since 2008 with Ronnie Musgrove,” Barbour said. “The Republican candidate did not close strong. Even with that, she still won by 8 points.” If someone is trying to paint a scenario of the glass being half full for Democrats, Barbour said,“I can’t get there.”

He said that the 2019 election will be much different than 2018 in terms of candidates, voter turnout and issues, though, he conceded some of the issues, such as health care, most likely will be the same.

While Espy was considered a strong candidate, he did not enter the race without some liabilities. First all, Espy, the first African American from Mississippi elected to the U.S. House in the modern era, had not run for office since 1992. And in his last foray in public service, he served in the Clinton administration as secretary of agriculture. In Mississippi, many view affiliation with the Clintons as a political liability.

Still, Espy proved to be a formidable candidate.

As a way of explanation,  the best showing by a Democrat for U.S. senator or president before Espy occurred in 1988, when Democratic U.S. Rep. Wayne Dowdy of McComb garnered 46.1 percent of the vote in losing to Republican U.S. Rep. Trent Lott of Pascagoula in the election to replace long-time U.S. Sen. John Stennis – the last Democrat to hold one of Mississippi’s two Senate seats. In 1982, Stennis garnered 64.2 percent of the vote against young Republican upstart Haley Barbour.

The only African American to garner a larger percentage of vote in any statewide election in Mississippi was Gary Anderson of Holly Springs who in 2003 received 46.6 percent of the vote for the office of treasurer. Anderson, a Democrat and the state’s former fiscal officer, was defeated by then-political novice Tate Reeves, a Republican.

In 2011, Anderson ran for the post of insurance commissioner, gaining 43.5 percent of the vote in losing to then-state Sen. Mike Chaney, R-Vicksburg.

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., left, is congratulated by Gov. Phil Bryant, right, and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves on winning re-election to the U.S. Senate on Nov. 4, 2014.

Espy lost to Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith, who was appointed by Gov. Phil Bryant as the interim senator, in April to replace Cochran.

Hyde-Smith and Espy were on the ballot with two others — Republican state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville and Democrat Tobey Bartee of Gautier —  in the Nov. 6 election. Espy and Hyde-Smith advanced to the runoff – both with about 41 percent of the vote.

In that first election, the two Republicans – Hyde-Smith and McDaniel – garnered 544,873 votes to 400,594 for the two Democrats – Espy and Bartee.

But in the runoff, Espy actually received more votes than did he and Bartee in the first election, indicating he made major strides in the three weeks between the first election and the runoff. Hyde-Smith received less votes than did she and McDaniel.

The official, certified votes in the runoff was 486,769 for Hyde-Smith to 420,819 for Espy – a total of 907,588 votes, 37,879 fewer than voted in the first election. That number was about 300,000 more than had ever voted in a mid-term election in Mississippi.

In fact, in the other Senate election on the ballot in November — state Rep. David Baria, D-Baria, challenging incumbent Roger Wicker, R-Tupelo —  the Baria campaign believed that if its candidate could capture 350,000 votes it could win the mid-term and accomplish a major upset. Baria received 369,567 votes, but still lost by 178,052 votes in the record turnout election.

An analysis of the recently completed election by the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University said it was hard to compare the election results to past elections because the turnout was so much greater than typical mid-terms and still significantly less than most presidential elections that generally have about a 25 percent higher turnout.

The Stennis Institute surmised the best comparison was the 2003 gubernatorial election where Republican Haley Barbour defeated Democratic incumbent Ronnie Musgrove. In that election, the turnout was close to the same as this year’s Senate runoff and the percentage of votes the Republican and Democrat received also was close to the same.

Still, the institute pointed out that, when the Espy/Hyde-Smith election is compared to the 2016 presidential election that the Democrat Espy performed better than Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the state’s more populous counties.

“The larger population centers in the State (DeSoto, Hinds, Madison, Rankin counties) were the primary locations of this Democrat vote shift,” according to the Stennis Institute study.

Time will tell if those results bode well for Hughes and other Democrats who will be on the ballot in November.

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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.