Since last week’s elections, when Republicans swept all eight statewide seats and added to their supermajorities in the Legislature, some prominent Mississippi Democrats have been musing aloud about what the party can or should do to become more competitive in the state.
One suggestion is to seek more diversity by fielding strong minority or female candidates for important offices. That’s a fine idea, one that Mike Espy put into place this week as he announced plans for a rematch with U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in 2020.
But it does not take a crystal ball to forecast that Espy will lose a year from now. He has a good political reputation and good name-recognition in the state, but he is a Democratic fish swimming in a pond dominated by Republicans.
In her less than two years in Washington, Hyde-Smith has made few if any grand public pronouncements. She’s good at coming up with federal money to help the state, but has a long way to go before she builds up the seniority to have significant influence in the Senate.
She is best known for two things: her unswerving loyalty to President Trump and, regrettably, her horrible choice of words during the 2018 campaign, in which she joked that she’d attend a public hanging if a supporter invited her.
Standing with Trump is smart politics for anyone representing Mississippi in Washington, as the president remains immensely popular with Republican voters in the state. And though Hyde-Smith’s public hanging remark was thoughtless, it does not make her the Klansman that her critics claim she is.
Espy will challenge Hyde-Smith with the disadvantage of representing a party that’s been rejected by a majority of Mississippi voters. He will also be at a financial disadvantage: Hyde-Smith already has $450,000 more than Espy does, and that gap is likely to increase over the coming months.
This is not written to talk Espy out of running. All incumbents need a good challenger to keep them on their toes and to give voters a legitimate choice. But if Jim Hood, the four-term attorney general, could not win a majority of votes when he ran for governor last week, it seems unlikely, if not virtually impossible, that Espy can pull out a victory next year.
The real problem is not with moderate Mississippi Democrats like Hood and Espy. It’s with the national Democratic Party, which has moved so far to the left that its positions are greatly outside of the Mississippi mainstream. When forced to carry that baggage — Tate Reeves blanketed the airwaves before last week’s election with ads tying Hood to Washington liberals — it’s too much of a burden for Democrats in a conservative state to overcome.
Mississippi Democrats may look at the party’s successes in other Southern states and strategize about duplicating them here. John Bel Edwards got elected Louisiana governor in 2015. Doug Jones won an Alabama U.S. Senate special election in 2017. And last week, Andy Beshear got elected governor in Kentucky.
However, each of these three victories featured unusual circumstances that tipped the scales toward the Democratic candidate.
In Louisiana, Edwards was running against U.S. Sen. David Vitter, whose hardball style of Washington politics didn’t play so well at home. In Alabama, Jones ran against Roy Moore, who was undone by reports of inappropriate contact with young women many years ago. In Kentucky, the Republican incumbent messed with teacher pensions, forgetting that they vote, too.
As long as Mississippi Republicans avoid pitfalls like those, there is every reason to believe they will continue to win elections. Good luck to Espy, but he has a very big hill to climb.