The media's hype of this potential upset has been half-hearted, and for good reason. Republicans aren't cruising to a blowout in the yet-undecided Mississippi Senate race (the special election, not the regularly-scheduled one, which Roger Wicker won easily) as might typically be expected, but the Alabama comparisons feel strained. For starters, just a few weeks ago, the two major GOP candidates vying for the seat vacated by Sen. Thad Cochran combined to win 58 percent of the vote, compared to just 40 percent for the leading Democrat. The leading vote-getter was Cindy Hyde-Smith, the quasi-incumbent, who was appointed in the spring to temporarily serve in Cochran's stead until the next regularly-scheduled election. Because nobody hit 50 percent of the vote, an automatic runoff was triggered. That decisive election is being held today.
Is Hyde-Smith in danger of losing? She has certainly made some unforced errors -- stepping on rhetorical land mines, and seeming intimidated and ill-prepared for the lone debate of the contest. Liberal groups launched a pressure campaign against corporations and large organizations who've donated to Hyde-Smith's campaign, notching some high-profile successes. But even the gloomiest-looking poll, a Republican internal that may have been leaked to make sure GOP voters don't sleepwalk through this one, gave Hyde-Smith a five point lead. Another more recent poll pegs her advantage at a less-competitive ten points.
Republicans are painting Hyde-Smith's opponent in the race as a corrupt liberal partisan. Mike Espy was indicted on 39 public corruption-related counts in the 1990's, leading to his ouster from President Clinton's cabinet, but no criminal convictions. Espy attacked the prosecutor in the case as a "school yard bully," to which the federal attorney replied by accusing the indicted former cabinet member of betraying the public trust:
Smaltz was offering no apologies, saying his office had won 15 other convictions and generated $11 million in fines. He said Espy's indictment last year on charges that he illegally took $35,000 in gifts sent a strong public message, adding, "The actual indictment of a public official may in fact be as great a deterrent as a conviction of that official." "Public service is a public trust," Smaltz said. "Officials must neither solicit nor accept gifts from any entities that they regulate. The appearance of impropriety can be as damning as bribery is to public confidence."
Among other ethical challenges, Espy has also had multiple tax liens filed against him, and has worked as a high-paid lobbyist on behalf of a repressive African regime. The Hyde-Smith campaign is nationalizing the election, framing it as a choice between President Trump and the resistance-minded Left. A look at a few of her recent ads:
Across those three spots, one voice is almost exclusively featured: The president's. That's not an accident. Trump spent several hours in the state yesterday, stumping for Hyde-Smith at two separate rallies. His goals are to rally base conservatives while drawing wider attention to the runoff, and to tie Espy to national Democrats. If Mississippi stays red, as is anticipated, the GOP will hold a 53-47 Senate majority in the new Congress, giving Mitch McConnell some needed breathing room on key votes -- especially on crucial judicial nominations. If Hyde-Smith is victorious, Mississippians will also help dim the prospects for a Democratic Senate takeover after 2020, and possibly even shuffle a McCarthyite showboat off of the Senate Judiciary Committee. I'll leave you with the president's straightforward endorsement in this race:
Mississippi, Vote for @cindyhydesmith on Tuesday. Respected by all. We need her in Washington!. Thanks!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 25, 2018
Parting thought: Comparisons to the Roy Moore debacle in Alabama are lazy and misplaced. Yes, there's a similarity, in that Democrats are hoping to corral an unlikely Senate pick-up in the deep South. But Hyde-Smith's flaws as a candidate are not even in the same orbit as Moore's abject unfitness.