Almost exactly a year ago, Democrats did the unthinkable: They won a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama. Doug Jones, a former prosecutor, knocked off Roy Moore, the Alabama Supreme Court chief justice whose Senate run was undone by accusations that he had preyed upon teenage girls. It was a narrow victory, to be sure—20,000 votes, roughly 1.5 percentage points—but still an extraordinary one. It pointed to a possible playbook for Democrats in the deep-red Deep South, albeit a playbook that required a supremely toxic figure like Moore.
In Mississippi’s Senate race, Democrats may have found just such a figure. In a run-off on Tuesday, Mike Espy, a centrist Democrat best known for being the first African-American to serve as secretary of the Agriculture Department, will take on Cindy Hyde-Smith, who was appointed to replace the ailing Thad Cochran in the Senate earlier this year. An Espy win will not be easy. Donald Trump won Mississippi by nearly 20 points in 2016 (though, to be fair, Trump won Alabama by nearly 30). Mississippi has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since the Cold War, when it sent the ardent segregationist Dixiecrat John C. Stennis to Washington for the last of his eight terms. But while it is a long shot, a series of gaffes by Hyde-Smith have given Democrats hope that they can recreate the magic they found in Alabama a year earlier.
Hyde-Smith only narrowly beat Espy in the midterm elections, earning 42 percent of the vote to the Democrat’s 40 percent. (In Mississippi, a runoff is triggered when a candidate does not receive more than 50 percent of the vote.) But her totals were likely driven down by the presence of Trumpist and apparent white nationalist sympathizer Chris McDaniel, who garnered 17 percent of votes. With McDaniel out of the runoff, one can expect his voters to move to Hyde-Smith’s camp.
Hyde-Smith has certainly spent the last few weeks trying to attract them. Less than a week after the midterms, she made some apparently pro-lynching comments at a campaign event. (That’s right: pro-lynching.)
Hyde-Smith’s comments unsurprisingly resulted in a huge wave of criticism. “Hyde-Smith’s decision to joke about ‘hanging,’ when the history of African-Americans is marred by countless incidents of this barbarous act, is sick,” wrote Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP. After Hyde-Smith refused to apologize, a number of corporate donors to her campaign, including Walmart and Union Pacific, demanded their money back.
Then, a few days after the lynching controversy, she told supporters that “maybe we want to make it just a little more difficult” for college students to vote, another comment with ugly resonance given Mississippi’s Jim Crow history. And almost two weeks later, she posed for photographs holding a rifle and wearing a Confederate cap.
Espy called Hyde-Smith’s comments “awful,” but stopped short of describing them as racist. Still, her remarks likely agitated the Democratic base, which could be bad news for Hyde-Smith: In Alabama’s 2017 special election, black voters turned out in droves to defeat Moore, who had fought to keep segregation in Alabama’s constitution. An internal Republican poll found that Hyde-Smith’s lead over Espy “had narrowed to just five percentage points,” according to The New York Times.
That may explain why Hyde-Smith finally decided to apologize for her comments in a debate against Espy on Tuesday night—sort of. “For anyone who was offended by my comment I certainly apologize,” she said. But she then attempted to turn the controversy on its head and blame Espy, saying her words were “twisted” and “used for nothing but political gain.” Espy hit back: “Nobody twisted your comments because they came out from your mouth.” Hyde-Smith’s comments, he continued, have “given our state another black eye,” by bolstering “stereotypes we don’t need anymore.”
Espy has an uphill climb. According to Vox, Democratic strategists have a clear goal for turnout: “Thirty-five percent of Mississippi’s population is black, and Democrats need them to make up at least that much of the electorate—preferably more, of course—to have a chance.” The centrist Espy is also hoping to pick off moderate Republicans. In Tuesday’s debate, he distanced himself from his party and made the case that he would be a forceful advocate for his state’s interests, touting a “Mississippi First” approach. “That means Mississippi over party. Mississippi over person,” he said. “I don’t care how powerful that person might be. It means Mississippi each and every time.”
During the debate, he also underscored his strong positions on gun rights and promised to push for a “strong immigration policy.” Meanwhile, concerns about health care, one of the defining issues in the midterms, may help Espy, who has returned to the subject again and again on the campaign trail. Hyde-Smith claims that she supports coverage of pre-existing conditions while also demanding that the Affordable Care Act be repealed. (This common Republican position is, of course, nonsensical, and voters punished the GOP for it in other states.)
Hyde-Smith’s strategy is built entirely on base turnout. She has campaigned as a mini-Trump, and the real thing will be appearing at a rally with Hyde-Smith on Monday, the day before the election. “I think we should definitely build that wall,” she said in the debate. “We can’t have people storming our borders.” Her gaffes may have hurt her campaign, and she may have used racist dog whistles against her black opponent, but she is not quite Roy Moore, a racist, a homophobe, and an accused pedophile.
Still, if Mississippi is going to turn blue—if only for a moment—the time is now.