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Mitchell: Eight Weeks Until Mississippi Selects Two Senators

Mike Espy’s path back to Congress isn’t easy, but it isn’t impossible, either.

It’s September, meaning a short eight weeks remain until Mississippi voters — those who participate and those who stay home — will join to select two people to send to the U.S. Senate. It’s very rare to select both senators on the same day, but that’s how things have shaped up.

Attracting the most ink, interest and intrigue is the contest to serve the two years remaining in the six-year term of former U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, who retired in April. It is a special election and has special rules.

Normally, Republicans and Democrats have primary votes to narrow the field. The idea is to send their best person to a general election to face the best nominee of the other party or parties and any independents. The person with the most votes on general election day wins.

Special elections are different in significant ways. First, candidates get on the ballot without any primaries and, at least on paper, without any party affiliation. Second, to win a special election, a candidate has to receive more than half of all votes cast. That means a runoff, usually between the top two, often becomes necessary.

The big names on the special election ballot for Nov. 7 are:

• U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, a cattle rancher from Brookhaven who was serving as Mississippi Secretary of Agriculture and Commerce until appointed by Gov. Phil Bryant to serve in Cochran’s stead pending the special election. Hyde-Smith previously served in the state Senate, changing to the Republican party after first being elected as a Democrat. She has the endorsement of President Trump and the National Rifle Association, among others.

• State Sen. Chris McDaniel, an attorney from Ellisville, who also identifies as Republican although his consistent message is that other Republicans (not Democrats) are a pox on America because they are too liberal. McDaniel’s vitriol brought him within a skosh of unseating Cochran in 2014. McDaniel’s brand is hardcore Rebel flag-waving conservatism and his attacks have been targeted at Hyde-Smith for being a pretender.

• Former U.S. Rep. and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, an attorney from Yazoo City. Espy, a Democrat, left the administration of former President Bill Clinton under a cloud of scandal, but was subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing. Although endorsed by U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, his successor representing the 2nd Congressional District, Espy’s record is far more moderate in his politics. The only African-American in the special election, Espy even endorsed Republican Gov. Haley Barbour for a second term over his Democratic challenger.

A fourth person on the ballot will be Tony Bartee, a Naval Academy graduate in engineering from Gautier. Bartee, who identifies as Democrat, is earnest but is a self-described “man of few words” and, lacking a history in politics, cannot be expected to fare very well.

The intrigue centers on whether it’s at all possible that a black man can win a statewide election in Mississippi. Strike two is that Espy is a Democrat, even though party affiliations will not appear on ballots. It has been more than 40 years since a Democrat represented Mississippi in the Senate.

For Espy to win, (1) McDaniel, whose star is fading, must poll enough votes to finish third and force a runoff between Hyde-Smith, who is likely to finish first and Espy, who is likely to finish second. Then, (2) voter turnout on runoff day, Nov. 27, will be decisive.

If Espy can forge a coalition of state Democrats and enough others who don’t see Trump’s endorsement of Hyde-Smith as a plus, he wins. If not, Hyde-Smith, who may well cruise to a win without a runoff, will remain in the Senate.

Historically, turnout in special elections — and especially special election runoffs — is tiny. That, of itself, may be decisive.

As for the regular election, there’s far less drama. The Republican establishment orchestrated a brilliant sequence to the benefit of incumbent U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker.

With the filing deadline impending earlier this year, McDaniel filed to unseat Wicker. But when Cochran’s resignation followed the filing deadline, McDaniel opted out of that race and into the special election, courting but not receiving the interim appointment by Bryant.

Wicker will be challenged by state Sen. David Baria, an attorney from Pascagoula who serves in the House. But Baria will have the (D) for Democrat by his name, which is a major turnoff for the majority of Mississippi voters.

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