An analysis of recent polls and interviews with Republicans suggest the most dynamic race in next week’s midterm elections may be the contest for Mississippi governor, pitting the state’s first black Republican senator in a presidential state against a state legislator with close ties to President Donald Trump.
Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith is facing an intense race against Democrat Mike Espy, a former congressman and agriculture secretary under Bill Clinton. Espy also served as agriculture secretary under Barack Obama.
Early polls, including ones conducted by CNN/ORC, have shown a razor-thin contest, and Republican campaign officials tell CNN their favorite candidate is in serious trouble with voters. The most recent internal Republican campaign polling had Hyde-Smith leading by a single point.
The Trump effect
Both candidates have embraced Donald Trump over the past few months, but Hyde-Smith has taken a more active role in courting support from conservative voters. The Mississippi contest is another example of just how involved Trump has become in races across the country this election cycle.
She’s led Trump in all public polling of the race, including a CNN/SSRS survey on Tuesday, October 30, that gave Hyde-Smith a 4-point lead. Trump also held a rally in Mississippi on Sunday and Monday nights.
So when Hyde-Smith waded into race-baiting comments on CNN last week, it did not sit well with Republican voters. She later said she was not seeking to offend anyone with her comments, but that admission seemed to resonate more with moderate than red-state Republicans, who were more bothered by the comment itself.
Those who watched the footage of Hyde-Smith’s comments saw the race-baiting angle didn’t come up after she made the comments. That, according to some Republicans, is likely why she is in a tough situation.
It is understandable, though, that Republican strategists are concerned. Party leaders believe that Republican candidates at the top of the ticket in Kansas, Arizona, Tennessee and Wisconsin will survive, with little threat to incumbent senators Susan Collins in Maine and Lisa Murkowski in Alaska. But Espy may have some trouble.
Espy leads Hyde-Smith in two CNN/SSRS polls, but that’s not as good as it might seem. Both surveys are dated August 1, before the attack ads that appeared to emphasize race began appearing in Mississippi. And the last month’s public polling was conducted before that. Still, a third poll from ABC News and the Washington Post showed Espy leading by 2 points.
The debate strategy
The closest thing in recent history to this contest is 2006, the last time two African-American senators squared off in November elections. Democrat Louis Farrakhan-backed Democrat Harold Ford Jr. faced Republican Sen. Bob Corker in Tennessee that year. Republicans won both races.
In Mississippi, Hyde-Smith’s strategy is a response to the Espy campaign’s policy, and an attempt to highlight an area where she actually does have an advantage.
There’s a good chance any races right now hinge on turnout, and it’s difficult to make a persuasive case Hyde-Smith’s race is propelled by an enthusiastic base, as both of the polls do. But even if she ends up losing this, she will have won enough votes to make this a competitive race in 2020, when the dynamics will be different.
She is now the first female Republican to win the Mississippi governor’s office. In recent days, she has publicly denounced the comments and apologized, which plays well in a state with the highest rate of African-American voter registration in the country.