The Senate special election in Mississippi is heading to a runoff. NBC News projects that none of the four candidates on the ballot will garner the majority needed to win the race outright on Tuesday, and that Republican interim Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democrat Mike Espy will have to settle things in a two-candidate contest on Nov. 27. The winner will serve out the remaining two years of retired GOP Sen. Thad Cochran’s six-year term.
With nearly two-thirds of the state’s precincts reporting, Espy and Hyde-Smith were running neck and neck, with 41 percent and 40 percent respectively. Republican Chris McDaniel was in third with 17 percent, and a little-known fourth candidate, Democrat Tobey Bernard Bartee, had less than 2 percent.
Neither party will be thrilled about a runoff, nor will either be all that upset. (Senate Republicans, however, have plenty else to be excited about.) Hyde-Smith is likely to consolidate most of the GOP vote now that McDaniel is gone, making her the heavy favorite in a state that went for Trump by 18 points two years ago and that hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since the 1980s. Strange things can happen in one-off elections, though, and Mississippi Republicans would have preferred not to spend Thanksgiving stressing out about holiday-season turnout.
Democrats, meanwhile, will be content with overtime, but the runoff they were hoping for was between Espy, a former congressman who went on to become the first black U.S. secretary of agriculture, and McDaniel, a proud Tea Party type who is particularly polarizing in the state. Espy still would have had an uphill battle against McDaniel, but Mississippi isn’t quite as politically conservative overall as you might think. It has the highest share of black Americans of any state in the nation, and Republicans’ margin of victory in recent elections there has been about 10 points smaller than it was in Alabama, where a Democrat won the Roy Moore–themed special election last year, or in Tennessee, where Democrats entered Election Day thinking they had a chance to flip a red Senate seat blue.
There was a brief period this spring when this special election was looking special indeed for Democrats. The ailing Cochran stepped down in a year when they already had the wind at their back. McDaniel decided to abandon his primary challenge to the state’s other GOP senator, Roger Wicker, to instead run in the special election, which had no primaries to winnow the field. Mississippi’s Republican governor then picked Hyde-Smith as Cochran’s interim replacement despite objections from the White House, raising the possibility that Trump would remain on the sidelines. And McDaniel, who had waged a particularly nasty primary challenge to Cochran in 2014, then did what everyone expected by quickly attacking Hyde-Smith as a RINO.
McDaniel’s campaign, however, never really took off the way it did four years ago. And by the time Election Day rolled around, order in the GOP had mostly been restored. The Republican establishment—including Trump—had rallied around Hyde-Smith, and so too had most Republican voters.
Democrats entered Election Day needing to pick up two Senate seats to take control of the upper chamber. There was an outside chance that they would end the night with 50 seats, in which case Mississippi would have become the ultimate tiebreaker. That, however, is no longer the case.