There are two Senate seats up for grabs in Mississippi on November 6. But that’s probably news to you.
Mike Espy’s candidacy has gotten some national attention — largely because he’s competing in an exciting three-way “jungle” primary against establishment Republican candidate Cindy Hyde-Smith, who replaced Thad Cochran on an interim basis when he stepped down in April, and Chris McDaniel, a tea party candidate who has benefited from millions of dollars of independent expenditures from right-wing PACs.
If none of the candidates gets 50 percent of the vote, the top two go into a runoff election, in which Hyde-Smith is heavily favored. Polls from early October showed Espy and Hyde-Smith in a dead heat, but she’s been polling about 10 points ahead of Espy since a visit from President Donald Trump, who rallied for her in Mississippi on October 3.
But unlike Espy, who has benefited from high-profile media coverage and visits from national figures like Sen. Cory Booker and former Gov. Deval Patrick, David Baria’s race against 11-year incumbent Roger Wicker is so under-covered, the title of a recent local news article described the race as the state’s “other” Senate campaign.
A double Senate race has only happened 55 times in American history, but the twin Mississippi races still can’t break the news cycle. And no wonder.
With 35 Senate seats and 435 House seats hanging in the balance, national focus has understandably been reserved for those races that seem to be most “winnable.” It’s reasonable to be pessimistic about red states, and given the conservative politics of the deep South, it’s particularly hard to be sanguine about Mississippi.
But Mississippi is not just red. It’s black. At 37 percent, no state has a higher proportion of African-American residents — or black senators over time. Of the 10 black senators ever elected in American history, the first two were elected by the Magnolia State — both in the decade following the Civil War, before senators were directly elected by voter.
Reconstruction-era politics are an unlikely hook for contemporary Senate chances, but there is a more recent reason to be hopeful: Barack Obama won over 43 percent of Mississippi voters in 2008, the best showing for a Democrat in the modern era since Jimmy Carter won 48 percent of the vote in 1980. For all of the demographic prognosticating about the increasing power of the Hispanic vote and glib democratic posturing about how African-Americans are a “firewall,” few seem to have taken notice of the untapped political power that lies in the heavily African-American Democratic base of Mississippi.
Few seem to have taken notice of the untapped political power that lies in the heavily African-American Democratic base of Mississippi.
Espy, the first African-American secretary of agriculture and a former representative from Mississippi’s 2nd District, sees a path to victory. He says often that it runs through the black community, but he also understands that attracting black voters alone is not enough. To win, not only would he need 95 percent of African-Americans to vote for him at Obama’s turnout levels, but Espy would also need one 1 of 4 white voters on his side.
In a September MSNBC interview, Espy pointed out that he’s achieved as much in the past. When he first won his congressional seat in 1992, he did it with only 85 percent of the black vote and 11 percent of the white vote. But by 1996, he’d garnered 95 percent of the black vote and 40 percent of the white vote, thus proving that the odds might be long, but they aren’t impossible.
FiveThirtyEight is forecasting Espy’s vote share at only a fraction of a point behind Hyde-Smith — 39.2 percent to her 39.9 percent. But he’s nowhere near the 50 percent needed to secure the election without a runoff, and his odds sour considerably in a runoff, during which Hyde-Smith would no longer be competing with McDaniel for Republican votes.
The time to win is now. Which is why it’s frustrating that the Democratic Party hasn’t taken more interest in the state.
According to Federal Election Commission filings, the Republican Party spent nearly $8 million in the state as of late October, while Democrats have received a little more than $2 million from the Democratic Party.
And conservatives are also overwhelmingly outpacing Democrats with respect to independent expenditures. In particular, right-wing groups like the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, Citizens United, and Remember Mississippi — a pro-McDaniel Super PAC — have poured millions of dollars into the race in support of McDaniel or opposing Hyde-Smith.
Meanwhile, outside help for Baria and Espy has been limited. The American Civil Liberties Union spent $130,000 in radio advertisements for Espy’s campaign, but independent expenditures for the Democratic candidates have been meager. Espy received about $5,000 each from The Collective, a PAC founded to remedy African-American underrepresentation in elected office, and the Congressional Black Caucus PAC. Indivisible kicked $1,497 to Baria in October.
In a rare national media interview, Baria was asked whether he felt he was getting enough support from the Democratic National Committee. He demurred, saying that the DNC has offered support through state parties. But according to FEC disclosures, Baria has received less than $7,000 in party committee contributions. The DNC has given over $300,000 to the Mississippi Democratic Party this cycle, but the state party has made fewer than $6,000 in disbursements outside of operating expenses. Only $1,250 of that meager sum seems to have gone to Baria.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is solely dedicated to electing Democrats to the Senate, has given directly to only four candidates — offering the maximum $47,400 donation to Rep. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. The bulk of its independent expenditures — $28.68 million — has been against Republican candidates, compared to $1.1 million for Democrats. But it doesn’t appear that any of that money has been used against the Republican candidates in Mississippi. Curiously, the DSCC saw fit fund an ad attacking Wicker on health care and wages back in 2008, but not in 2018, when highlighting that the threat Republicans pose to residents of the disproportionately low-income state would benefit two candidates at once.
The failure to invest is particularly troubling given the low cost of advertising in Mississippi. An ad that costs $35 per minute in Los Angeles might cost less than half as much in Jackson. Small, independent ads have proven to be overwhelmingly beneficial to candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who saw a huge spike in funding after an advertisement by socialist filmmakers Means of Production went viral.
In May, CBC member Rep. Bennie Thompson D-Miss., articulated his hope that the DSCC would help Espy. “If I get asked, I’ll tell them they should,” Thompson said, according to the Clarion-Ledger, a local newspaper. “If we are the base voters for the Democratic Party, then you need to invest equally in those voters,” — not two weeks before the election, but two years before. A day before the election, that hope has not materialized.
Baria’s campaign is interesting in its own right. He’s running the kind of inclusive, issue-based campaign that’s been shown to have traction in red, rural districts that Democrats gave up on long ago. And with a biracial son, he’s not without a certain amount of identity-based appeal. Certainly it’s a long shot — 43 percent of those polled favored Wicker, giving him a 14-point lead. But Baria is quick to point out that Wicker fails to break the 50 percent mark in polls and that there are more than enough swing voters to tip the balance in his favor — especially since black voters tend to be underrepresented in these polls.
More cynically, however, Baria’s presence on the ticket serves as a natural boost for Espy’s campaign — even more so given that he could turn out white moderate Democrats who might not be inclined to come out for Espy, but may be likely to vote a straight ticket at the polls.
The two candidates have campaigned together around the state, bumping into each other at “beans and greens,” fundraising dinners where the candidates can talk to constituents and give their stump speeches. When their paths overlap, both Baria and Espy will tell audiences that they have a chance to vote two Democrats into the Senate on November 6. The candidates apparently see the opportunity for collaboration, but that hasn’t been taken advantage of on a broader scale.
The candidates apparently see the opportunity for collaboration, but that hasn’t been taken advantage of on a broader scale.
When Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., visited Mississippi in April to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, he identified Obama’s success in the state as a point of political opportunity. “If you had a Democratic Party that was a 50-state party, which was paying attention to Mississippi, and South Carolina and Georgia, as well as Kansas and Montana and Idaho, if you had a party that was putting resources and energy into every state in the country, there is no way on earth that you will not get 20 or 30 percent of white Mississippians voting for a candidate like Obama.”
Recent gains in the South have proven as much. In Georgia, another deep South long shot, Stacey Abrams is neck and neck with Brian Kemp in the race to become the first black female governor in the state. Her inclusive messaging strategy and voter registration work have paid clear dividends and provide a blueprint for other states. Espy, it seems, has adopted similarly broad and inclusive messaging. “I don’t look at race so much as I look at economic possibilities, common ground for everyone regardless of race,” he said during a recent MSNBC interview. “I’m talking about not just black, but all Mississippians.”
Sen. Doug Jones’s victory in Alabama over accused child predator Roy Moore is also an instructive lesson in the power of grassroots organizing by the black electorate. Espy’s campaign has hired staff members from Jones’s campaign and is hoping to recreate the levels of turnout that contributed to Jones’s victory.
But the story of that Alabama race is also a story about the power of opposition advertising. Not only did black voters — especially black women — come out in support of Jones, Republican voters stayed home — unenthusiastic about voting for an accused child molester. Negative ads highlighting Republican efforts to cut Medicaid and Social Security could have a suppression effect on Republican voters, who, like the Alabama conservatives turned off by Moore, might decide to sit this one out. After all, Mississippi is the worst state in the country with respect to health outcomes, and both Democratic candidates have been campaigning on health care as a centrally important issue to Mississippi voters.
As Jones’s Alabama win showed, even if winning is a long shot, there’s value in showing up.
But despite the political gains to trade here — the historic opportunity presented by two Senate seats up for grabs in Mississippi and the opportunity to maximize the value of ad dollars by supporting two Democratic candidates in one media market — the Democratic Party has largely ignored the election. Given the significant impact even a small spend could have in the state, Mississippi feels like a missed opportunity. As Jones’s Alabama win showed, even if winning is a long shot, there’s value in showing up.
Rather than approaching elections as though outcomes are a fait accompli determined by polling and historical trends, Democrats could try harder to change outcomes by doing the actual work of politics — persuading voters that the Democratic platform would benefit constituents’ lives — no matter where they live. Beto O’Rourke has expanded the left’s political imagination in Texas, where he poses a genuine challenge to Republican incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz despite running an unapologetically liberal campaign, one largely funded by grassroots donations. By running an inspirational campaign, O’Rourke was able to tap into tens of millions of dollars to make the race competitive. Democrats in Washington think too often about the downsides of allocating scarce resources. Instead, they should also look to expand the resources that are available.
The analogy isn’t lost on Baria. Last week, he retweeted a supporter: “Hey Mississippi, did you know we have our own version of @BetoORouke? His name is David Baria, and he is going to Washington to fight for our healthcare, or right to marry who we love, and our education.” If only more people knew.
States where Democrats have lost by greater margins than Obama lost Mississippi are considered to be swing states, hotly scrutinized as sites for political opportunity. In 2016, Hillary Clinton earned only 43 percent of the vote in Ohio and 41 percent in Iowa, compared to Obama’s 43 percent share of Mississippi voters in 2008.
Of course, close elections alone don’t make swing states. Both major political parties needed to have won in recent years for a state to get that designation, and a Democratic presidential candidate hasn’t won in Mississippi since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Moreover, a Democratic senator hasn’t sat in the state since John Stennis — a pre-realignment segregationist — retired in 1989. In other words, Mississippi has yet to “swing.” But it might be a loaded ballast just waiting for the right push.