Mississippi voters went back to the polls today for an unusual special U.S. Senate election runoff, with incumbent Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith (who was appointed to the position earlier this year) heavily favored over former congressman and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy. The two candidates were virtually tied during the first round on November 16, but the bulk of “other” votes went to conservative Republican Chris McDaniel. Given Mississippi’s recent pro-Republican complexion (it’s been a long time since a Democrat won a Senate, gubernatorial, or presidential election there) and history of racial polarization, the idea of an African-American Democrat like Espy winning seemed remote, even though Hyde-Smith ran a terrible campaign marked by serial gaffes of a racially inflammatory nature.
In the end, Hyde-Smith won, but not impressively, as the Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman concluded early on:
Hyde-Smith’s visible backing from her national party and from Donald J. Trump (who appeared at two rallies with her on the eve of the runoff) pulled her through, even though Espy improved on his November 6 performance.
It appears that Hyde-Smith neither consolidated the Republican vote completely, nor gave Republicans the kind of statewide special election turnout advantage they usually enjoy in the South. In the end she won by less than the first round of results would have suggested, as FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich concluded:
The AP has called the runoff for Hyde-Smith, more or less officially putting a cap on the evening. Hyde-Smith currently leads 56 percent to 44 percent, although the remaining uncounted vote figures to be Democratic-leaning. This should still be a single-digit race — and a solid Democratic overperformance — when all is said and done.
So Republicans will maintain a 53/47 margin in the U.S. Senate, at least until 2020 (when Hyde-Smith, among others, will again face voters in the very different, high-turnout context of a presidential cycle). And southern Democrats will continue to feel some frustration at their three strong but ultimately unsuccessful performances behind the historic statewide candidacies of African-Americans Espy, Stacey Abrams (Georgia gubernatorial nominee) and Andrew Gillum (Florida gubernatorial nominee). Political experts will intensely examine the turnout patterns in all these states to determine whether a coalition of minority and white suburban voters might revolutionize southern elections in the very near future. In the meantime, Mike Espy, who didn’t have the progressive street cred’ or media buzz enjoyed by Abrams and Gillum, did an admirable job of challenging the ancient race-driven status quo of Mississippi.