A lot will need to go right for Democrats to flip a U.S. Senate seat this fall in Mississippi. Already, though, a few things are starting to break their way.
On Wednesday, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant officially named Cindy Hyde-Smith, the state’s agriculture and commerce commissioner, to replace Sen. Thad Cochran, whose pending retirement next month for health reasons set this particular chain of events in motion. Hyde-Smith will become the first woman to represent Mississippi in Congress, serving as an interim senator until voters decide this fall who will finish the remaining two-plus years on Cochran’s term. Hyde-Smith says she plans to run in that special election, and that’s where things get dicey for Republicans. The White House reportedly opposed her selection, meaning Donald Trump might not help sort out what could be a messy intra-party fight that stands to benefit Democrats.
The special election will take place alongside the November midterms, but there won’t be any primaries to winnow the field before Election Day. Instead, all of the candidates in the special election will be on the same ballot, which means multiple Republican candidates could split the conservative vote. In a quirk that could complicate things for the GOP, the ballots themselves won’t list a candidate’s party affiliation, which will make it difficult for some people to vote their preferred party line. And, one more twist, if no candidate wins 50 percent of the vote in the Nov. 6 special election, the top two finishers, regardless of party, would proceed to a runoff the following month.
Those aren’t theoretical problems for the GOP, either. Chris McDaniel, a state senator and long-time GOP gadfly, jumped into the race last week. McDaniel is a proud Tea Party type who narrowly lost a nasty primary run-off against Cochran four years ago, and he still has plenty of conservative hardliners as friends and more than a few establishment enemies as a result.
McDaniel’s presence in the race makes a runoff far more likely. Republican leaders fear that his penchant for saying controversial things and alienating those in his own party means that, if he does make the run-off and is up against a centrist Democrat, it could lead to a repeat of Alabama, where Roy Moore lost to Democrat Doug Jones in a special election last year. (Unlike Moore, McDaniel has not been accused of being a child predator; like Moore, he has a long history of incendiary remarks.)
The White House and Mitch McConnell were so wary of this possibility that they urged Bryant, who will soon be term-limited out of office, to appoint himself to the Senate, believing he could dispatch McDaniel in the special election without too much trouble. Bryant rebuffed those requests and instead set off looking for someone else who could beat McDaniel. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann were believed to be on his short list, but ultimately the governor went with the lesser-known Hyde-Smith.
Just last week, Bryant promised to campaign hard for whoever he appointed, and against McDaniel in the special election, and he suggested that Donald Trump would likely do the same. But seeing the president on the stump in Mississippi no longer looks so likely. According to the New York Times, the White House urged Bryant not to go through with selecting Hyde-Smith, and according to Politico and CNN, they went as far as to suggest that Trump may sit out the special election rather than risk backing another special-election loser.
The White House’s concern, shared by many in the GOP establishment, is that Hyde-Smith is ill-suited for a campaign against McDaniel, given she served in the state senate as Democrat before switching parties in 2010. McDaniel seems to agree. He issued a statement after Bryant’s announcement saying that Mississippi voters will now have a choice “from among the Democratic candidates or they can vote for a lifelong conservative Republican.”
So where does this leave Democrats? For starters, still looking for the right candidate to thread this particular needle. They’ll want to consolidate around a single one in hopes of pushing him or her into a runoff against whichever Republican survives what is sure to be a bruising campaign. Even then, though, it will remain an uphill battle. The state went for Trump by 18 points in 2016, hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since Jimmy Carter, and hasn’t sent one to the Senate since the 1980s. Plenty more will need to break Democrats’ way for them to pull off this surprise. More striking, though, is just how many things already have.