Trump could sway the Mississippi Senate race. But who is his candidate?

President Donald Trump will play a part in the selection of Mississippi’s senators
President Donald Trump will play a part in the selection of Mississippi’s senators AP File

Democrats have their best chance to take a Senate seat in years.

Not that long ago, the chance of the party having a Doug Jones-Roy Moore moment in Mississippi seemed remote at best.

But today, they’re poised to benefit from the civil war for the heart of the GOP. Gov. Phil Bryant couldn’t have given Chris McDaniel a much better foil than Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith. She was a Democrat most of the time she served in the Legislature.

Expect McDaniel to remind you of that fact a time or two between now and November when voters will decide who will serve the final two years of retiring Sen. Thad Cochran’s term. In the last Senate election, Sen. Thad Cochran beat Democrat Travis Childers by about 140,000 votes in what was essentially a two-man race. Sorry, Shawn O’Hara.

McDaniel and Hyde-Smith will be fighting for the same Republican votes. Neither give Democratic voters much to like, so if Mike Espy can get the Democrats excited and keep them fired up, he’ll win. And should another Republican, Andy Taggart, perhaps enter that race, Espy’s chances only get better.

The other elephant in the room is President Donald Trump. So far, candidates in both Senate races have been racing to prove they’re the Trumpiest person on the ballot.

Trump’s personal pick, Sen. Roger Wicker, should send Cochran a thank you note for getting McDaniel off his back. McDaniel had to have known that the not-conservative-enough label would have been tough to stick to Wicker. But he was going to try it anyway until Cochran’s seat opened up.

Now Wicker has a much easier path to the general election. Only Richard Boyanton of Diamondhead stands in his way. In the fall, though, he’ll meet the best of a strong Democratic field: Rep. David Baria, Rep. Omeria Scott, Howard Sherman, Jensen Bohren, Jerone Garland and Victor Maurice Jr. Right now, Wicker is the overwhelming favorite with a ton of money, statewide name recognition and a strong alliance with Trump.

Not so fast

There is just one problem with putting too many eggs in Trump’s basket. Trump likes to break things. A lot happens in the Trump presidency in a week. No one in their right mind would even pretend to know what the political landscape will be like in October.

The Russia investigation could be over with the president exonerated, the economy could be booming and the world could be at peace. Actually, any one of those would make Trump a valuable asset. On the flip side, if any one of those, particularly the economy, goes south, the game changes.

McDaniel was quick to release an Open Letter to President Trump, asking the president to stay out of the race, or risk having a Moore moment.

“We do not want what happened in Alabama or Pennsylvania-18 to happen here in Mississippi,” the letter says. Then, McDaniel played the “D” card.

“Her only experience as a legislator was as a Democrat,” the letter continues. “She changed her party affiliation because she would not have won a statewide race as a Democrat.”

The Remember Mississippi PAC, McDaniel’s main source of cash, echoed him with an email headed: “Another Democrat enters the race.”

What would Democrats do?

Democrats on the Coast are a bit divided on how to handle Hyde-Smith. Renick Taylor, the parliamentarian of the Harrison County Democratic Executive Committee, wants to tie her to Trump.

“When the adulterous, philandering, private parts grabbing tape of Donald Trump came out Cindy Hyde Smith was silent,” he wrote in a paid post on the Democrats Facebook page. “When woman after woman came forward and told their stories of Donald Trump‘s unwanted sexual advances, when he speculated on Megyn Kelly’s menstruation, about Carly Fiorina’s face, about the size of his member, Cindy Hyde Smith said nothing. Cindy Hyde Smith didn’t even say anything when Trump endorsed Roy Moore after his sexual predilections for teenage girls was known.”

But Ricky Cole, the former party chairman, wished Hyde-Smith well in the Senate, reasoning that since she’ll be in the seat for the rest of the year, Mississippi needs her to “bring home the bacon.” When it comes to the election in November, though, Cole is behind Espy. The state party, meanwhile, is deploying a gold mine of Facebook posts by McDaniel in an attempt to paint him as anti-women.

Is it time for a woman?

Longtime Harrison County Supervisor Connie Rockco prefers Hyde-Smith and said the appointment of woman to the Senate is long overdue in the state. Hyde-Smith nominated Rockco for this year’s Governing magazine Top 25 Women in Government.

“I’m just thrilled,” said Rockco. “I’m thrilled that she’s capable and that she’s a capable woman.

And she said the fact that she’s been able to work with the other party will be an asset, not a detriment, when running against McDaniel.

“We’ve got to wake up and work together. This partisan stuff has got to stop. We’re not getting anywhere with that.”

Rockco also said the numbers favor Hyde-Smith.

“I think she’ll have to work hard because they’ll throw everything the can at her,” she said. “We have more registered voters in Mississippi who are women than are men. So I just hope all the women get behind her.

“It’s time. We are 57 percent of the voting population and we have no seat at the table. We’re not being represented.”

Voters often say that’s what they want — an end to the bickering.

The Coast’s Democrat in the Senate race, David Baria, seems intent on taking the voters at their word. Before Hyde-Smith’s appointment was official, he posted a series of tweets — calling for a civil debate.

“I intend to spend the coming months talking about issues that affect the everyday lives of Mississippians — issues like jobs, making health care more affordable, and infrastructure,” He wrote in one. “I got tired of waiting around for that kind of campaign to happen and I hope you will give me the opportunity to earn your trust and your support.”

Should Baria ride that strategy into the general election, presumably against the Trump-endorsed Wicker, it will be interesting to see how Trump will respond. Or at least what unflattering nickname he’ll hang on the Bay St. Louis Democrat.

It’s not 10 years until November. It will only seem that long.

Paul Hampton: 228-284-7296, @JPaulHampton