The Slatest

Mississippi’s Senate Free-for-All Starts to Look Like a Two-Person Race

ELLISVILLE, MS - JUNE 24:  Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Mississippi State Sen. Chris McDaniel talks with members of the media after casting his ballot at the George Harrison Building on June 24, 2014 in Ellisville, Mississippi.  Tea Party-backed republican candidate for U.S. Senate, Mississippi State Sen Chris McDaniel is battling against incumbent U.S. Sen Thad Cochran (R-MS) in a tight race.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Conservative firebrand Chris McDaniel will start the race well back in the polls. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

With two candidates from each party, and no primary to winnow the field, Mississippi’s special election for a U.S. Senate seat could get very messy between now and November. But for now, at least, the two party favorites appear to be firmly in control.

A new poll out Tuesday, the first since the field expanded to four candidates earlier this month, found a 20-percentage-point gap between the two establishment favorites and their intra-party rivals in the race to replace retiring Sen. Thad Cochran. The Y’all Politics survey shows Democrat Mike Espy and Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith—who was appointed to the seat earlier this month—in a virtual tie, with 33.1 percent and 33 percent support respectively, followed by Republican Chris McDaniel at 13 percent and Democrat Jason Shelton at 8 percent.

If no candidate gets 50 percent on Election Day, which seems likely, then the race will be decided in a runoff. The pollsters found Hyde-Smith with a 6 point advantage in a hypothetical head-to-head with Espy, 42 percent to 36 percent. If McDaniel were to qualify, Espy’s lead grows to 19 points—43 percent to 24 percent. (The poll did not provide a margin-of-error, but it’s likely that Hyde-Smith’s lead on Espy is within or at least near it.)

The results are a bit of mixed bag for the Democratic and GOP establishments back in Washington. Democrats will be happy to see Espy in the top two to start the race, but are hoping that he’ll ultimately find himself in a runoff with McDaniel, a proud Tea Party type who is particularly polarizing in the state. Republicans, meanwhile, will be very relieved Hyde-Smith is out in front of McDaniel, even if her lead on Espy in a hypothetical runoff looks small. Republicans greatly outnumber Democrats in Mississippi—Donald Trump won the state by 18 points in 2016—and the expectation is that most of those voters will come home, if the GOP can just advance an inoffensive nominee to the runoff.

To that end, GOP Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith, a former state official with no national profile, to fill Cochran’s seat over the objections of the White House and other GOP leaders. Her critics worry she’ll be vulnerable in a potentially bruising battle with McDaniel, a long-time party gadfly who nearly knocked off Cochran in a primary four years ago. Already, McDaniel has come out swinging, attacking Hyde-Smith over the fact she served in the state Senate as a Democrat before switching parties in 2010.

The survey, though, suggests Hyde-Smith begins the race with a clear advantage on McDaniel. Another reason for Republicans to exhale, at least slightly: McDaniel may not have much room to grow. Of the four candidates, he was the only one with an approval rating underwater, with 17 percent approving and 42 percent disapproving. Meanwhile, 32 percent approve of Hyde-Smith, with only 16 percent disapproving.

The Democrats would love to see Espy in a two-man race with McDaniel, who has a penchant for saying controversial things and alienating those in his own party. Espy is a former congressman who went on to become the first black U.S. secretary of agriculture, and his appeal among black Americans, which make up more than one-third of state’s electorate, are seen as crucial to any effort to flip the seat from red to blue. Democrats can look for inspiration just to the east, where a strong black American turnout helped the party capture a Senate seat in Alabama last year. The question for Republicans is whether the debacle there will serve as a cautionary tale for their own voters, about what can happen when you nominate the guy who likes to court controversy.