Politics & Government

Mike Espy sees runoff as path to a Miss. Senate seat. Here’s why it’s a bumpy road

Mike Espy is running for the runoff — the sort of election that some African Americans have said for years is designed to keep them from winning.

Espy, President Bill Clinton’s agriculture secretary and a former congressman, is counting on Mississippi’s runoff election system in his bid to become the ruby red state’s first African American U.S. senator since Reconstruction and its first Democratic senator in nearly four decades.

The runoff is baked into Espy’s campaign strategy against Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and conservative firebrand Chris McDaniel, Republicans who he’ll face in a so-called “jungle” primary special election Nov. 6 to finish the final two years of GOP Sen. Thad Cochran’s six-year term. Cochran retired in April citing health reasons, and Hyde-Smith was named to replace him until the election determined a successor.

If none of the candidates receive 50 percent of the vote on Nov. 6, the top two finishers will square off in a Nov. 27 runoff with possible national implications. If one party winds up with a 50-49 edge Nov. 6, the Mississippi contest could determine who controls the Senate when it convenes in January.

The thinking about runoffs goes like this: A black candidate in the South could easily win a multi-candidate primary, as long as they get most of the black vote, which could be as high as the mid-to-low 30s. But in a one-on-one contest, the potential to add to that total is diminished.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who made the abolishing runoffs a cornerstone of his unsuccessful 1984 Democratic presidential campaign, said “Historically, and in many instances today, whites support white candidate regardless of how qualified an African-American candidate is.

“Even if Mike Espy does make it to the runoff in Mississippi it is unlikely that he will win the runoff — whatever runoff system is used in Mississippi” despite having the highest percentage of African-American residents in the country at 37 percent, Jackson said.

Espy disagreed.

“We’ve got two different models, we have two different teams, and we’re working it two different ways,” Espy said in an interview at his campaign headquarters in Jackson.

Some African American lawmakers and civil rights leaders have long been wary of runoffs, claiming the system diminishes the chances of African American candidates winning elections.

“Historically, in the South, runoffs were used a two-shot opportunity to disenfranchise black people from winning elections,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., a Congressional Black Caucus member and Espy supporter.

Espy, who once won the National Rifle Association’s “silver rifle” award and endorsed the re-election of Mississippi Republican Gov. Haley Barbour in 2007, believes his record as agriculture secretary and as a moderate who sometimes bucked his party when he served in the House of Representatives will appeal to white voters.

“In my platform I’m saying ‘I’m a Democrat yes, but I’m not only a Democrat,’” he said. “I place the state ahead of the party...everything that comes down is not something that I’m necessarily going to vote for lock, stock and barrel with my party.”

Being a candidate in “the sensible middle” helps create a plausible, but undeniably challenging, path to the runoff and to Capitol Hill, Espy said.

A Democratic poll conducted for his campaign last month showed him running second on the Nov. 6 ballot at 27 percent, behind Hyde-Smith’s 29 percent and ahead of McDaniel’s 17 percent.

An earlier poll conducted in May for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which supports Hyde-Smith, also showed Espy in runoff range at 22 percent to Hyde-Smith’s 30 percent and McDaniel’s 17 percent.

To reach the runoff, Espy and Democrats say he’ll need at least 95 percent of the African-American vote, replicate the type of black turnout that helped Democratic Sen. Doug Jones defeat former Judge Roy Moore in neighboring red state Alabama’s special election in December. Espy will also need at least 22 percent of the white vote.

Jones, who is white, received 96 percent of the black vote in Alabama. It’s no coincidence that Espy’s campaign is sprinkled with veterans from Jones’ campaign, including media consultant Joe Trippi.

“Anything would be predicated upon Doug Jones-level African-American turnout, which is unprecedented,” said James Carville, a Democratic strategist who was an architect of Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. “You’d have to get that kind of level turnout and you’d have to probably exceed turnout among whites by 5 or 6 percent. I see there’s a path, but I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s going to happen.”

Research by Charles Bullock III, a University of Georgia political science professor and co-author of the 1992 book “Runoff Elections in the United States,” shows that Espy faces daunting odds.

Of 422 Mississippi runoff elections between 1970 and 2016, the first-place finisher in the primary won the runoff 72.3 percent of the time.

Women who led in primary contests won runoffs 80.6 percent of the time. Hyde-Smith is vying to become the state’s first woman elected to Congress.

Of 13 Mississippi primary elections where African-American candidates led white opponents, African-American candidates prevailed in 10 runoffs, according to Bullock’s research.

Academic experts say runoffs, established in the 19th Century by southern Democrats, were formed more to maintain political party power than to suppress African-American voting power.

Poll taxes, literacy tests and other means were already successfully doing that, according to Cal Jillson, a Southern Methodist University political science professor.

Mississippi is one of 10 states that require candidates to win primaries by majority of votes. The others are Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Vermont.

Vermont only conducts runoffs in the event of a tie and South Dakota only holds runoffs for U.S. Senate, House and gubernatorial races, according to National Conference of State Legislatures.

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas