The bitterly-contested U.S. Senate runoff in Mississippi may not end — it looks like the same cast could all run again for the same seat in 2020.
Incumbent Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith won the brawl to fill the remaining two years of retired Sen. Thad Cochran’s six-year term with her victory of Democrat Mike Espy. She’s up for re-election in 2020
Espy, apparently buoyed by his showing Tuesday, didn’t sound in his concession speech like a politician who’s ready to exit the stage any time soon.
“Make no mistake - tonight is the beginning, not the end,” he said. “When this many people show up, stand up, and speak up, it is not a loss. It is a moment. It is a movement. And we are not going to stop moving our state forward just because of one election.”
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Hyde-Smith defeated Espy 53.9 percent to 46.1 percent, according to the Associated Press, but she emerged a gaffe-prone candidate with her comments about public hanging in a state with a tragic history of lynching African Americans.
Hyde-Smith apologized for the remark. Still, some believe that her performance during her 2018 campaign, which made the Senate race closer than expected, run indicates that she could be defeated in 2020.
Conservative Republican firebrand Chris McDaniel, who failed to make the runoff cut after finishing a distant third in the Nov. 6 jungle primary against Hyde-Smith and Espy, isn’t ruling out another Senate run in 2020.
“I want to be clear, I’m here to fight for conservatives,” said McDaniel, who narrowly lost to Cochran in 2014. “If that means running again in 2020, I’ll do that, if it means running for something else, I’m going to do that...I want the establishment to understand I’m not ruling anything out.”
Joseph “Dallas” Breen, executive director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, said it’s possible 2020 could be a rerun of 2018.
“Espy’s showing gives some energy (to) a possibility of a Democrat contending for what’s typically been a Republican seat for the last few decades,” Breen said. “I think a lot of its based on the presidential approval in the state with Cindy Hyde-Smith supporting his agenda and running on that. A lot could change if that perception changes.”
Mississippi last elected a Democrat to the Senate in 1982.
McDaniel said his political ambitions are tied to President Donald Trump, who is wildly popular in Mississippi.
He said his 2018 Senate chances died the moment Trump stood by Hyde-Smith at a rally in Southaven, Mississippi, in October and proclaimed that a vote for her was a vote for him.
“He’s the strongest politician in our state by a factor of 10,” McDaniel said of the president. “My future in large part depends on what he does and how things shake out in Mississippi. If he is going to involve himself in statewide primaries, if he’s on our side, that’s a very strong friend to have. If he’s not on our side, that would make a race almost impossible.”
Some national Democrats said the competitive race in Mississippi showed the benefit of the party investing in even deep-red states.
While a number of emerging-star Democrats, including Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Andrew Gillum in Florida and Beto O’Rourke in Texas, didn’t win this time, the investments in those more conservative states put the party in a substantially stronger position for future campaigns, said Jaime Harrison, a Democratic National Committee official from South Carolina.
Harrison also argued that there will be political consequences for accepting language like Hyde-Smith’s public hanging remark.
“If Republicans want to sit back and rest on their laurels and blow dog whistles, and believe that’s going to be a recipe for how they continue to win elections, they’re going to get a rude awakening,” he said.
Former U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi doesn’t envision that happening in the state soon.
Taylor believes that it would almost be impossible for Espy or any other Democrat to capture the Senate seat in 2020 because Trump will be at the top of the GOP ticket in a presidential election year.
Taylor served in the House as a Democrat from 1989 to 2011 before losing to Rep. Steven Palazzo in 2010. Taylor, who was regarded as one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, became a Republican in 2014.
“I represented what had been the most Republican district held by a Democrat, at least one of them, there really isn’t much of a Democratic base in Mississippi anymore,” said Taylor. “I don’t see a circumstance where that changes other than an absolute lightning-strike-you scandal out of the White House in the 18 months to two years.”