At President Donald Trump’s shameful rally in Southaven, Miss., last week, the state was once again portrayed as representing the worst of us. Within hours, video clips went viral of the crowd laughing and applauding as the president mocked Christine Blasey Ford, a woman whose claim of sexual assault by Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, even most Republicans found credible.
And why wouldn’t we expect Mississippi to embody the worst of what the Republican Party has become? It consistently ranks in the top three most conservative states in the country. It has voted for Republican presidents for nearly four decades and elected only Republican senators since 1988. It’s no wonder the Democratic Party pays the state no mind.
But we are in an era when we should expect the politically unexpected. And the numbers suggest that change is within reach - even in Mississippi.
Come November, Mississippi could send not one but two Democrats to the U.S. Senate. Think that’s impossible? Then you should ask why Trump was stumping in this deep red state in the first place.
Thank Trump for this much: Voters are paying attention today. Republicans have nothing to show for their years in power in the state. Mississippi continues to rank at the bottom in nearly every indicator of success, including health, education, economy and infrastructure. It has the highest poverty rates, the lowest median income and the highest rate of uninsured. So the electorate has a lot to gain from Democratic policies.
As with many things in the South, the vote traditionally splits along racial lines, so the Democratic voter base in Mississippi (38 percent African American) is actually larger than in Alabama (26 percent African American), where Democrat Doug Jones won the special election to fill Jeff Sessions’ Senate seat last December.
An NBC poll shows the overall party gap closing in Mississippi too. Only 51 percent indicated they would vote Republican in this midterm, after more than 58 percent voted for Trump in 2016. Add in Trump’s performance last week, which will resonate with his most committed base but likely put off some white female voters. If Democrats make inroads with white women, they’re within spitting distance of a double win.
In a rare occurrence, both Mississippi Senate seats are on the ballot this November because Sen. Thad Cochran stepped down April 1.
Mike Espy, a conservative Democrat, is running for that vacant seat. Espy, who served in Congress from 1987 to 1993 and as secretary of Agriculture under President Clinton from 1993 to 1994, would be the first African American senator from Mississippi since Reconstruction. He is running in a nonpartisan special election against two Republicans who are competing for the GOP vote. The top two candidates will go to a runoff later in November.
David Baria, a progressive Democrat, is trying to unseat Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, so he is considered more of a long shot. Wicker, however, only pulled 43 percent in the NBC poll - a poor showing for such a longtime incumbent. Baria was a trial lawyer who has been active in statehouse politics for a decade and has consistently won in a primarily Republican area. He already had 15 percent of the white vote statewide in an internal poll conducted in August, and his name recognition and donations have only increased since then. Meanwhile, Wicker has ignored invitations to debate and made little effort to campaign.
Both Democratic campaigns believe that if they get high voter turnout from the African American community - meeting or exceeding their percentage of the population as a whole - they only need 20 percent to 22 percent of the white vote to win.
Espy and Baria are very different candidates, and their natural constituencies don’t necessarily align. As an African American, Espy will energize the African American community, but in today’s Mississippi, his race will still be a barrier to peeling away white votes. Baria’s progressive positions could be off-putting to independents who dislike Trump but are socially conservative. But if each candidate convinces their constituencies that it’s vital this year to vote for Democrats in both races, the amplifying effect could push both over the finish line. Jointly campaigning on the cause - two Democratic seats are better than one - could be a powerful strategy in an election where so many races are competing for national attention and resources.
Democratic strategists and donors have ignored the Bible Belt for too long. These campaigns are still largely overlooked and underfunded, but upsets happen. Sen. Jones’ win in that hotly contested Alabama special election should be a wake-up call to Democrats: Don’t cede the South to Trump.
Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Lucien Smith scoffed at the idea of an Alabama-style upset, stating: “I’m about as likely to grow wings and fly as Democrats are to win a Senate seat in Mississippi.”
What better rebuke of the sham the Republican Party has become than to prove him wrong. Twice over.
Elizabeth Shackelford, born and raised in Mississippi, was a U.S. diplomat until she resigned in protest of Trump administration policies last year.