A smidge of suspense on election day

Published 9:24 pm Monday, October 22, 2018

Question: What do you call a person with no body and no nose?

Answer: Nobody knows.

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If not ask the nearest 8-year-old.

Election day looms for Mississippi and it is a rare one. The state’s entire delegation to Congress will be chosen. Nobody knows (sorry), who will win and who will lose but prognostication is great sport.

Will Mike Espy pull off a shocker? Could David Baria ride Espy’s coattails in the other race for U.S. Senate? Is it even possible there will be surprises in any of the four U.S. House races?

The answers, in order, are, it’s possible, it’s not likely and no way.

In 1986, Espy was elected from District 2 as the first African-American member of the U.S House from Mississippi since Reconstruction. His district was contrived under the Voting Rights Act to ramp up minority voter numbers to the point a black person could win, but an interesting trend followed. Mississippi Delta whites became fans of Espy’s gentle ways and his effectiveness in supporting the farm economy. Many who had feared him became his biggest fans.

In 1993, Espy was chosen by President Clinton as the first African-American and first Southerner to be Secretary of Agriculture. That went well for two years until Espy was accused of accepting gifts he could have accepted while a member of Congress, but not as a Cabinet officer. Espy resigned, was tried and despite a zealous prosecution costing taxpayers tens of millions, was found innocent. A stain remains, however, and has been exploited by his foes.

Espy’s lifelong affiliation as a Democrat, of course, will not appear on the ballot because he is joining others in a special election to fill the two years remaining on the six-year term of former Sen. Thad Cochran.

Another distinction is that unless he, Tobey Bartee (Democrat), Cindy Hyde-Smith (Republican) or Chris McDaniel (Republican) poll more than half the votes cast on Nov. 6, there will be a runoff on Nov. 27. Speculation is that — strictly determined by who votes — Espy and Hyde-Smith have the best odds of winning a majority and escaping a runoff.

Bartee is a strong military veteran and nice-enough person, but hasn’t been able to mount a statewide campaign and McDaniel has two strikes against him. One is that establishment Republicans boxed him out and the other is that, well, he is who he is.

In one of the best-executed political maneuvers ever, it appears the powers-that-be set up a sequence to marginalize McDaniel, a state senator who had been raising money for a “senate” campaign for months. With the filing deadline looming, McDaniel qualified to face U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker. Conveniently, Cochran’s April 1 resignation then followed filing deadline.

That left McDaniel with the choice of continuing to face a well-funded incumbent or go for the “easy pickings” in a special election. He opted for the latter. The next strike came when Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith to Cochran’s post. McDaniel was effectively labeled an opportunist.

The second reality is that McDaniel never sought or gained traction with mainstream conservatives. His appeal is to the extreme right, peppered with talk of slashing spending while boosting the Confederate heritage and the state flag.

Hyde-Smith, also a former state legislator, is running as the annointee of establishment Republicans. Her campaign has consisted of placing a “Trump” sticker on her forehead, which will likely prove sufficient on the first ballot if McDaniel has fallen far enough or, if not, in a one-on-one runoff with Espy if that comes to pass.

Wicker has no negatives except among those turned off by his slavish devotion to the president. But it’s not likely that will cause enough voters to switch to his Democratic opponent, Baria, another veteran of the state Legislature. In every objective tally, 65 percent of Mississippians identify as Republican and 35 percent as Democrat. Baria may do better than any recent Democrat seeking a federal post in a statewide election, but 15 points is a high hill to overcome.

The House incumbents are Trent Kelly (Republican) in District 1, Bennie Thompson (Democrat) in District 2 and Steven Palazzo (Republican) in District 4. District 3 voters will be replacing the retiring Gregg Harper, and will most likely do so with another Republican, Michael Guest. No surprises.

It can’t be emphasized how much “who votes” will matter. Espy’s only hope is to shepherd a big turnout of minority voters plus the state’s few white Democrats. Hyde-Smith wins if he doesn’t.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.