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Salter: U.S. Senate Runoff Between Hyde-Smith, Espy Sure to Take on a National Party Flavor

As it happened on Nov. 6, the pollsters on both sides were uncannily accurate in their predictions that Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democratic challenger Mike Espy would run a close first and second in the open primary and leave Republican challenger Chris McDaniel a distant third with Democrat Tobey Bartee bringing up the rear.

That’s how it happened. Hyde-Smith led with 368,536 or 41.5 percent of the vote with Espy close behind at 360,112 or 40.6 percent with 98 percent of the state’s precincts reporting on Nov. 11. McDaniel trailed with 146,013 or 16.5 percent and Bartee polled 12,707 or 1.4 percent.

Studio portrait of Sid Salter.
(photo by Beth Wynn / © Mississippi State University)

Perhaps the two most surprising elements of the state’s so-called “jungle primary” special Senate election came at the end of it, when McDaniel delivered a rather quick and gracious concession speech and a subsequent pledge to generally work to unify the Mississippi GOP and to specifically support the election of Hyde-Smith as the GOP nominee against Democrat Espy.

McDaniel’s post-election comments were civil, upbeat and unequivocal: “We now have to unite. Mr. Espy cannot be allowed to win this seat,” McDaniel said. “President (Donald) Trump wants us to unite. We will unite and we will back Cindy Hyde-Smith.”

I rather doubt that Mississippi voters have heard the last from state Sen. McDaniel. His ability to read the political tea leaves (pun slightly intended) were remarkable in his race – but I’ll return to that point in a few paragraphs.

Regardless, McDaniel’s endorsement of Hyde-Smith’s runoff campaign positions the Nov. 27 runoff as little more than a referendum on the two major national parties – a Republican Party that has dominated statewide politics here since the early 1990s and a Democratic Party that hasn’t held a U.S. Senate seat in Mississippi since U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis finished his final term on Jan. 3, 1989.

A look back to 2016 confirms that Mississippi voters chose Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton by a margin of 57.86 percent to 40.06 percent after Trump easily dispatched Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio in the state’s GOP primary while Clinton took 82 percent plus in drubbing Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders in the state’s Democratic Primary.

For state Republicans seeking to attack Democrats, the usual targets remain available – Clinton, former President Barack Obama, Sanders, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer and likely House Speaker U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi.

Democrats, as seen during the midterm elections, have focused their attacks almost exclusively on the flamboyant and fiercely outspoken Trump. That’s likely to continue in Mississippi Special Election runoff between Hyde-Smith and Espy.

In his 2018 concession speech, McDaniel aptly referenced the Trump endorsement of Hyde-Smith and his Oct. 2 appearance supporting her at a huge Southaven rally was a turning point in his campaign. “When President Trump endorsed Cindy Hyde-Smith, we knew then we had a full plate. We understood that,” McDaniel said.

Espy’s best chance at winning this election always rode on the notion that a massive, historic voter turnout transpired on Nov. 6. He got that massive turnout, but it wasn’t enough for an outright majority.

Expect to see national players enter the runoff fray on both sides. But since outright control of the U.S. Senate isn’t on the table in Mississippi on Nov. 27, it won’t be an overwhelming national effort.

Political theatrics, ominous radio ads, social media manipulation, TV ads and robo-calls aside, the one issue that Mississippi voters may well weigh more carefully in the runoff is something Hyde-Smith already has on her resume – seats on the U.S. Senate Appropriations and Agriculture committees with a seniority head-start and as part of the Senate’s majority party.

Between Hyde-Smith’s and McDaniel’s combined Nov. 6 vote, 514,549 state voters or 58 percent of those who voted in that election have already taken a pass on the Espy campaign. That one statistic paints an honest picture of the challenge before him in the runoff.

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