Republicans worry they could lose two key races in Mississippi

Some state GOP leaders think the governor’s mansion and a once-safe U.S. Senate seat may be in peril

Composite showing U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde Smith – a Republican from Mississippi – standing in front of a cattle farm on the left, with an image of a 'big blue wave' to the right.
Can U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) withstand a big blue wave? (Wave photo by Steve Lacy/Flickr)

The Republican stranglehold on Mississippi is in peril, according to some in the state party who have begun to whisper concerns about two key races: a special election for a U.S. Senate seat and the election to choose a new governor next year.

Cindy Hyde-Smith may not be the path to holding Cochran’s senate seat, some fear

GOP insiders think the U.S. Senate seat vacated last month by longtime Senator Thad Cochran could be lost in the “big blue wave” that political analysts have for months predicted could materialize in November, wiping out GOP majorities in Congress and possibly the Senate.

Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith – a Republican – was appointed to that seat by Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant shortly after Cochran announced his retirement. In November, she will be challenged by State Senator Chris McDaniel, a Breitbart-endorsed conservative who nearly toppled Cochran in a 2014 Republican primary. Several Democrats are running for the seat as well, including former Congressman Mike Espy.

Because it is a special election, there will be no party primaries. Instead, all candidates will compete on Election Day in November and, if no candidate breaks 50 percent – which is practically guaranteed –, the top two vote-getters will compete in a runoff election.

A Y’all Politics poll in mid-April found Cindy Hyde-Smith and Mike Espy tied at 33 percent each, with Chris McDaniel drawing 12 percent. In a runoff, the poll found Hyde-Smith leading Espy 42-36, while Espy led McDaniel 43-23.

But while some establishment Republicans fear McDaniel would endanger the seat à la Roy Moore in Alabama, there is also fear among some GOP insiders that Hyde-Smith could ultimately be the weaker candidate, one source said. None other than President Donald Trump and members of his administration reportedly worry she could lose a special election.

“There’s a sense that once the honeymoon with Mississippi’s first female senator is over and her recent record of being Democrat is more heavily highlighted, her candidacy could demotivate conservative voters in a runoff,” said one source with close ties to party officials who says he is not personally supporting McDaniel. “Cindy has shown a mixed record on issues important to Mississippi Republicans, like gun rights. And more broadly, there’s a concern, you know, ‘What does she stand for?’ ‘How does she energize conservative voters back home?’

He said he’s heard Hyde-Smith to Hillary Clinton, with questions about her “likability” and whether voters will see her as a “principled” leader. Asked if he thinks gender plays a role in such perceptions, he didn’t deny the possibility. “Maybe it does, but it is what it is and you can’t just tell voters, ‘You only feel that way because she’s a woman,'” he said. “You have to sell yourself to them, whether the playing field is fair or not.”

Ultimately, he said, Republicans need a candidate who will turn voters out in a runoff.

“We need a candidate who is defined by something more than just resumé and establishment bonafides,” the source continued. “If there is a so-called ‘big blue wave’ in the general election, Republicans are going to be feel pretty darn depressed and we’ll need a candidate who can motivate our core voters to turn out in a runoff. Democrats are already going to be motivated. On the other hand, McDaniel could motivate them even more, so that is a concern as well.”

If Republicans lose Mississippi, he said, it’s a bad omen nationally.

“If Mike Espy wins or even comes within a few points of winning here,” he said, “Then we’ve already lost control of the U.S. Senate, House, 2019 isn’t looking good in the state, and we’re headed for a 2020 bloodbath.”

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood (font left) speaks at the U.S. Department of Justice in 2013, joined by other state attorney generals including then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris.
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood (font left) speaks at the U.S. Department of Justice in 2013.

For the first time this century, a Democrat leads the race for the Mississippi governor’s mansion

The last Democrat to hold the Mississippi governor’s house – Ronnie Musgrove – failed to win re-election in 2003. That same year, Democrat Jim Hood was elected as Mississippi’s new attorney general. Nearly 15 years later, Hood still holds that office, and he’s gearing up to run for governor in 2019.

A Mason-Dixon Poll released April 24th found Jim Hood leading Mississippi Lt. Governor Tate Reeves by 5-points, 44-39 – just outside the 4-point margin of error. The poll also found Hood leading Reeves in favorability and name recognition.

By virtue of being lieutenant governor, Reeves is favored to win the GOP nomination for governor; outgoing two-term Governor Phil Bryant was lieutenant governor when he was elected to the governor’s mansion in 2011. There’s no guarantee, however, and Reeves is disliked by a significant number of anti-establishment figures in the state party.

What does it mean?

There’s no question that Democrats remain underdogs going into any statewide race (unless you’re Jim Hood and you decide to skip the governor’s race to instead run for another term as attorney general). That said, the playing field in Mississippi hasn’t looked better for Democrats in decades – which is true on a national level, too.

Combined with hopeful polls for Democrats, the fact that some inside the GOP are worried about Democrats winning key races in Mississippi (Mississippi!) – a state Trump won by 18 points – is a sign that a blue wave could send some riptides down to the Deep South. And if that happens, all bets are off.

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