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Mississippi Democrats think they’ve found their own Doug Jones

Former congressman Mike Espy is hoping to use a battle among his Republican opponents to his advantage.

by Alex Thompson
May 21 2018, 12:55pm

A Republican senator from the Deep South leaves his seat and a special election is called in a state that Democrats haven’t won in decades.

The Republican governor appoints a close ally with serious political liabilities to fill the seat temporarily, drawing a primary challenge from a right-wing firebrand.

A moderate Democrat preaching civility over party quietly joins the race, assembles a strong campaign team, and wins.

That’s the narrow path to victory that made Doug Jones the first Democratic senator from Alabama in 25 years in December. Implausibly, it might be happening all over again this year next door in Mississippi (though, Republicans have to hope, without any allegations of pedophilia against their candidate).

Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran’s sudden retirement for health reasons earlier this year has left two Republicans duking it out in a special election to replace him. And with Republicans clinging to a 51-49 majority in the Senate, every race this November is critical.

Read: What Democrats can learn from Doug Jones's win

Democrats, for their part, have united behind Mike Espy, a former congressman who's leaning hard into the “Doug Jones 2.0” narrative.

Espy, 64, even hired Jones’s political pros. That team is headed by Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who says Mississippi may be easier to win than Alabama was.

“If you overlaid the Alabama result on the Mississippi electorate, Doug Jones would have won Mississippi by 8 points,” Trippi told VICE News. “I’m not saying that there aren’t things to get over. I’m saying if you thought Alabama wasn’t possible and you look at the data and the real facts and you look at who is registered — then if a Democrat can win in Alabama, a Democrat can win in Mississippi.”

Of course, Mississippi is red. Crimson, really. The state hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1982, and President Trump won the state by 18 percentage points. But even some Republicans agree that it’s possible, if things break Espy’s way.

“For the Democrats, he’s a very formidable candidate,” said former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. “Each one of the candidates has a base of support and you would be foolish to say that it’s going to turn out this way or that.”

Read: Democrats bet big on “Iron Stache.” They may have made a mistake.

Election analysts from Real Clear Politics and FiveThirtyEight have concluded that Espy has a real chance; a series of early polls show him running competitively as the race kicks off.

“He will raise a ton of cash and has a good chance to energize African-American turnout,” Sean Trende, the senior elections analyst at Real Clear Politics, tweeted in March. He believes Republicans could lose the seat.

Contrary to many Democrats around the country who are running to the left and presenting a sharp ideological contrast with their Republican opponents, Espy is a moderate — “admittedly a Democrat,” as he put it in a recent interview with VICE News. “You know, you don't have to espouse your party platforms and push it in people's faces,” he said.

Espy talks about calming the partisan chaos in D.C. and keeping the focus on his home state. Mississippi First, you could call it. And Espy is quick to say he isn’t running against President Trump, though he did vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“There is significant evidence that running on common ground during this chaotic, divisive time is a winning message,” Trippi said, pointing to Jones in Alabama as well as Ralph Northam in Virginia and Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania, who all ran campaigns stressing their ability to work across the aisle.

The field is now clear of major Democratic competitors, including Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton, who dropped out earlier this month. But no matter how down-the-middle and competently Espy runs his campaign, the race will likely hinge on what happens among the Republicans.

Gov. Phil Bryant appointed state agricultural commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith to the Senate seat in March and she quickly drew a primary challenge from State Sen. Chris McDaniel, a far-right conservative who nearly defeated Cochran in 2014. McDaniel was a centerpiece of former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s plan to usher in a new wave of anti-establishment Republicans by challenging incumbents.

Hyde-Smith was a Democrat until 2010, but many Republicans in Washington think McDaniel is more vulnerable in a general election because of past comments he’s made on race and women.

“Chris McDaniel is incredibly unpopular not just with Democrats, but also independents and mainstream Republicans,” said Ryan Taylor, who until last month was the communications director for Mississippi’s other senator, Roger Wicker. “We've learned a hard lesson as Republicans this year about what happens when we nominate a candidate out of the mainstream, even in deep-red states.”

Trippi also sees the McDaniel vs. Hyde-Smith battle as analogous to the Republican primary last year in Alabama. “The more Roy Moore and Luther Strange fought in Alabama, the more Doug Jones called for finding common ground and ending the chaos,” Trippi recalled.

And the intra-party Republican fight will go all the way until November this time because Mississippi does not hold party primaries. If no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote on Election Day, it goes to a run-off three weeks later between the top two candidates, regardless of party.

“If there is a bloody race, the Democrat will try and peel off some Republicans who are maybe turned off by that race,” Barbour predicted.

Despite the odd parallels between Alabama and Mississippi, there is one significant difference between Jones and Espy: Espy is black, making his path to victory more fraught in a state where 38 percent of the population is black but the Confederate stars and bars still feature prominently on the state flag.

Mississippi’s black population is higher than Alabama’s 27 percent, so demographics could play to Espy’s political advantage. But he must simultaneously motivate black Democratic Mississippians who have not won a statewide race in decades (and who rightly feel neglected by the national party) while also convincing enough white Republicans to vote for a Democrat for the first time.

He’s done it before, albeit on a smaller scale. Espy became the first black congressman from Mississippi since Reconstruction when he won in 1986, and he then became the first African-American to serve as secretary of agriculture, during Bill Clinton’s first term. He left that job in 1994 after he was indicted by an independent counsel for taking improper gifts from companies like Tyson Foods and Sun-Diamond Growers, but was later acquitted of all charges. While this scandal effectively ended the first phase of his political career, Republicans and Democrats say they see his ties to the Clintons as a bigger political liability.

If he wins in November, he would be the first black senator from Mississippi since Reconstruction (and just the second from any state in the former Confederacy). “My election would be historic by all bounds and criteria, and I would be a symbol of a new Mississippi,” Espy said.

He added that, if elected, he would immediately petition to remove the statue of Jefferson Davis that represents Mississippi in the U.S. Capitol. His proposed replacement: blues legend B.B. King.

“There’s nobody who would protest B.B. King,” he said. “I mean, come on!”

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