The Slatest

A Small-Town Mayor Muddles Democrats’ Chance to Flip a U.S. Senate Seat in Mississippi

Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton announced his U.S. Senate candidacy on WTVA on Tuesday, April 3, 2018.
Tupelo, Mississippi, Mayor Jason Shelton announced his U.S. Senate candidacy on a local TV news program.
Screenshot from WTVA

So much for everything breaking Democrats’ way in Mississippi, where an intraparty fight on the right and a few quirks of state law had given Democrats an outside chance of winning a special election for a U.S. Senate seat this fall.

On Tuesday, Jason Shelton, the Democratic mayor of Tupelo, announced he is running for the seat, which will be filled by a nonpartisan election in November. The problem for his party? Shelton is the second Democrat who has announced his intention to run, raising the possibility that the pair will split the vote on the left and ruin the party’s chances of sneaking a candidate into the two-person runoff that would occur if no one tops 50 percent on Nov. 6. Given the state’s heavy conservative tilt, a runoff against a wounded Republican represents Democrats’ best chance of pulling off the upset this fall.

Shelton is an unknown quantity nationally. He was first elected mayor of Tupelo (population: 38,842) in 2013, overcoming a concerted effort from state Republicans to become the first Democratic mayor of the city in nearly three decades. But his most high-profile decision to date was probably removing the state’s Confederate-themed flag from outside his city’s police department earlier this year. He’s never run for statewide office before, and, in making his announcement on local morning TV on Tuesday, he kept things vague when asked about his platform, instead touting his “record of being a fiscal conservative” and relying on similar boilerplate. “The culture in Washington is just so toxic,” he said. “It’s a win-lose proposition for each party. We’ve got to have someone that is willing to go to Washington and actually roll up their sleeves and work.”

According to his home-state newspaper, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Shelton was not recruited by Chuck Schumer or other national Democrats, who are believed to be far more excited about Mike Espy, the former Democratic congressman who had already declared his intention to run. Espy, who served in the U.S. House for a six-year stretch in the late 1980s and early 90s, was Mississippi’s first black congressman since Reconstruction, and he went on to become Bill Clinton’s secretary of agriculture, making him the first black American to hold that post. He’s expected to appeal strongly to the state’s black community, which makes up more than one-third of the state’s population, the highest share in the nation. And he comes with at least a dash of crossover appeal, after he crossed party lines in 2007 to endorse then-Gov. Haley Barbour, who previously served as the chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Espy, however, isn’t without baggage. His political career was derailed in the mid-’90s when he resigned as agriculture secretary under pressure from the White House during an investigation into whether he improperly accepted gifts from businesses and lobbyists. He was eventually acquitted on all charges, but it nonetheless brought his political career to a screeching halt. He’s been out of the game for nearly a quarter century, raising doubts about his ability to appeal to voters and donors in today’s political climate. And, of course, the GOP will no doubt try to use his time in the Clinton administration against him.

The mere presence of both Espy and Shelton on the November ballot would complicate things for Democrats, because they’d likely eat into at least some portion of the other’s vote total. For Democrats to have a legitimate shot at snagging the U.S. Senate seat, they’re almost certainly going to have to rally around one of the two—and, ideally, convince the other to drop out—and then hope that things get as nasty as expected between the two Republicans in the race: Cindy Hyde-Smith, a former state official who was appointed by Mississippi’s GOP governor last month as Thad Cochran’s interim replacement, and Chris McDaniel, a state senator and longtime party gadfly who railed against the GOP establishment in a messy primary he narrowly lost to Cochran four years ago.

Before Tuesday, a remarkable number of things had broken Democrats’ way in Mississippi. Cochran announced his early retirement in a year where Democrats have the political wind at their back. The unique rules of the special election made Republicans’ lives that much harder. And the brewing intraparty fight between McDaniel and Hyde-Smith makes it unlikely either will win a majority on Election Day and pretty much ensures that neither will survive the campaign unscathed. Shelton’s announcement doesn’t change any of that. It will, however, make it more difficult for a Democrat to thread the needle and qualify for the runoff because there will now be two of them trying to do it.