Appointed U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., right, and Democrat Mike Espy shake hands following their televised Mississippi U.S. Senate debate in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, Pool)

In the 2008 general election, former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove garnered 560,064 votes in his quest to capture a seat in the United States Senate – the most votes ever received by a Democrat not named Barack Obama in Mississippi.

Musgrove still lost by more than 123,000 votes or 10 percentage points to Republican Roger Wicker.

The Senate election, of course, was a special election to replace long-time senator Trent Lott, who had unexpectedly resigned.

While the Mike Espy versus Cindy Hyde-Smith contest in 2018 also was a special election, to replace long-term Sen. Thad Cochran who resigned for health reason, the Espy-Hyde-Smith rematch this November might be more compatible to the Musgrove-Wicker 2008 special election.

Bobby Harrison

After all, in 2008 like this November, the Senate contest will be held during a presidential election. And in Mississippi, as most states, the turnout for presidential elections is significantly higher than in contests held in other years.

In 2008, for instance, Obama received almost 555,000 votes – the most for a Democrat running for president. In 2012, Obama surpassed that total receiving almost 563,000 votes.

But, in both of those elections, Obama, of course, lost by substantial margins – first to John McCain and then to Mitt Romney. The best Obama did was capturing 43.8 percent of the vote in 2012.

Those outcomes provide in real numbers the obstacles that Espy and Joe Biden, if he does as expected and goes on to capture the Democratic nomination for president, face in November in Mississippi.

Can Espy win the roughly 125,000 votes that Musgrove could not and prevail in Mississippi?

It will be a tall order. Based on recent polling, and history, he cannot.

When Espy announced late in 2019 that he would again challenge Hyde-Smith – this time for the full six-year Senate term – he acknowledged he would need to win African American turnout at a similar rate or better rate than Obama did in 2008 and 2012.

And even if he does that, he still won’t be successful based on what happened to Musgrove. Espy also said late last year he had to convince a larger percentage of white Mississippians, who traditionally have voted Republican in overwhelming margins, to cross party lines and vote for him.

Espy, a historic figure in Mississippi as the first African American elected to the U.S. House from the state in the modern era, believes he can make history again. He believes he can do what Democrats, including Ronnie Musgrove, Barack Obama and Jim Hood in the 2019 governor’s election, could not do.

In last week’s Democratic primary, about 280,000 Mississippians voted – far short of the record turnout in 2008 when Obama and Hillary Clinton were on the ballot, but still a respectable turnout. It was a better turnout than in 2016 and 2012.

Tuesday’s vote did not do anything to dispel the belief by some that something is happening in Madison County, which includes affluent Jackson suburbs like Ridgeland and the city of Madison. For decades, Madison County has been part of the Republican bulwark. But in 2019, the county voted for Democrat Hood. It marked the first time since 1987 that Madison County voted Democratic in a governor’s election.

Is Madison County becoming a purple county? If so, that is significant, but Democrats still need much more than Madison County, if winning that county is even possible, to prevail in the November general election.

On the positive side for the Democrats, Espy points out that turnout in the Democratic primary in both Madison County and DeSoto County, a Memphis suburb, increased by more than 30 percent when compared to 2016 turnout.

True, but the turnout in those counties still was less than the record Democratic turnout of 2008 when Obama and Musgrove were on the ballot. And look what happened to Musgrove and Obama in the November general election.

An Espy news release, argues, “according to exit polls, the Democratic primary was 28 percent white and 72 percent non-white. This is a 4 percent increase in white Democratic primary voters from 2016. This is a clear sign that Mike and Joe Biden are able to bring out a much broader coalition than past Democratic candidates. If Mike is going to be successful in November, he will need to see a similar increase in his own share of the white vote for the general election.”

Exit polls in past presidential general elections – not primaries – have indicated about 10 percent of white Mississippians voted Democratic.

If Espy or Espy and Biden can garner around 28 percent of the vote of white Mississippians in November, they will win the state.

Then Espy would indeed make history. But history tells us that is going to be tough row to hoe.

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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.