Don't believe the hype: Even in this extraordinary electoral year, Democrat Mike Espy is going to need a miracle to win today's U.S. Senate election in Mississippi against Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith.
Hyde-Smith has been a dismal candidate with an ugly attachment to signs and signifiers of the Confederacy. That makes Republicans nervous and Democrats hopeful that she might stumble. But Mississippi is still Mississippi, a state that hasn't sent a Democrat to the Senate in a generation, and the little polling that's been done suggests that while Espy might give Hyde-Smith a run for her money, he doesn't figure to be the exception to Mississippi's Republican rule.
One sign that the race is Hyde-Smith's to lose came Monday night, when President Trump visited Mississippi to participate in two rallies for her. Trump likes to put GOP candidates over the top, so the rallies probably represent a bet by Trump he'll be able to take credit for a Republican victory when voting ends later today.
That's not to say Espy's efforts have been in vain, and you better believe that if Hyde-Smith loses, Trump will pivot quickly from taking credit to casting blame. As we wait for the results, here are three things to understand about Mississippi's Senate runoff election.
First, it's all about race. There will be no euphemisms about "economic anxiety" or the "white working class" when the election results are analyzed. In Mississippi, the Republican party's preeminence at the polls comes almost purely from the power of white voters sticking resolutely together. The GOP can eke out a win without many black votes, but Democrats absolutely can't win unless a significant percentage white voters cross over, and that doesn't happen: During an earlier round of voting for this Senate seat, Espy and another Democrat combined to capture just 16 percent of the white vote. At least one analyst suggests that number needs to be 22 percent today for Espy to have a chance, even if black voter turnout surges to support him.
"Espy will need to win over a significantly larger percentage of white voters than he did in round one, even if turnout patterns change," CNN's Harry Enten wrote this week. "I'm unaware of any polling, public or private, to suggest that is likely."
Second, Hyde-Smith is a lousy candidate, and that gives Espy his sliver of a chance. Technically, she's the incumbent in this race: She was appointed to the seat earlier this year when former Republican Sen. Thad Cochran retired. But she's proven inept at best, stumbling into headlines when she made jokes about attending a "public hanging" — a sensitive topic in a state with an ugly history of racist lynchings. Since then, she's dodged questions about the topic even as evidence emerged that she has a history of celebrating the Confederacy.
"I don't know what's in your heart — but we all know what came out of your mouth," Espy told Hyde-Smith at their lone debate, just before Thanksgiving. "It's caused our state harm. It's given our state another black eye that we don't need." When it comes to taking advantage of Hyde-Smith's missteps, Espy has treaded carefully and judiciously.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, Espy's campaign has been aided by the GOP's sloth. If opposition parties get timid, dominant parties get lazy, often putting forth mediocre candidates whose major qualifications amount to being a bit ambitious. Hyde-Smith's appointment to Cochran's Senate seat is the act of a party that thought it couldn't lose, and so didn't try all that hard to win until late in the game.
This is exactly why Democrats should work hard to contest seemingly unwinnable races — because you never know when an opening will arise. Opposition parties in states and cities dominated by their opponents often tend to wither, putting up either token opposition in elections or, sometimes, conceding elections without putting up any candidate at all.
Espy's a good candidate. He's a real politician — he served as both a congressman and as a member of former President Clinton's Cabinet. His record isn't unsullied (he was indicted on corruption charges in the 1990s, but acquitted on all of them), but he has the contacts and experience to mount a credible challenge to Republican dominance in Mississippi.
However, it's the GOP's fault that this race appears within reach for Espy at all.