March 16, 2018 11:21:18 AM
Ever since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the idea that a coalition of progressive white and black voters in Mississippi could break the stranglehold of conservative politics in a state-wide race has been largely an unproven theory.
With only a couple of exceptions, state-wide elections have remained the exclusive domain of white conservatives. Bill Waller and William Winter claimed the governor's office in the 1970s and 1980s, but other than that, the black/white bloc has failed to find a candidate both groups could rally around.
Mississippi has not elected a black candidate to statewide office since Reconstruction.
That could change this fall. The stars may finally have aligned for the progressive white/black coalition.
Former U.S. Representative Mike Espy has announced his intention to seek the open U.S. Senate seat that will be vacated by Thad Cochran in April.
While the qualifying deadline for the special election, set for Nov. 6, has yet to be set, the race right now pits Espy, a moderate Democrat who supported Haley Barbour for governor, against state representative Chris McDaniel, a Tea Party darling who narrowly lost a race to unseat Cochran in 2014.
At least one other candidate will emerge: In April, Gov. Phil Bryant will appoint someone to fill Cochran's seat until November. Most likely, that person will be the GOP establishment's preferred candidate against McDaniel, who is universally despised among the traditional Republicans of the state.
Since the special election will not be conducted by political party -- all candidates will compete on the same ballot and if no candidate receives a majority, the top two vote-getters will proceed to a run-off on Nov. 20 -- it is likely that Espy would emerge as the front-runner, with the GOP vote split between McDaniel and the yet-to-be-named interim senator.
In that scenario, traditional Republicans could find themselves facing quite a dilemma: a Republican they loathe or something equally distasteful -- a Democrat. Some voters might find the choice so distasteful they might choose to stay home. Run-off elections are notorious for low turn-outs even when popular candidates are on the ballot. It's pretty simple for the tradition Republicans; the interm senator must advance to the run-off.
Having McDaniel in the run-off would be one of many pieces that would have to fall in place for Espy to make history.
Another part of the equation, perhaps the most important part, is black voter turnout, which represents slightly more than 37 percent of eligible voters in the state.
Historically, black voter turnout in non-presidential elections is low: Former state Representative Tyrone Ellis of Starkville estimates turnout is typically in the low 20 percent range.
Espy may finally be a candidate that inspires the black vote, Ellis said.
"I think he'll have tremendous support," he said. "But the first thing that has to happen is the Democrats have to get going on voter registration. Espy could win, but it will come down to two things: Blacks have to register and then they have to go vote."
Espy is not without perception problems, it should be noted. After leaving Congress to take over as Secretary of Agriculture, Espy was involved in a controversy over charges that he accepted inappropriate gifts. He resigned his position in 1994 to fight those charges.
To be fair, the investigation proved to be a farce. A special prosecutor charged Espy on 38 counts, mostly for accepting tickets to ballgames and other items, which seems almost quaint today, when congressmen's campaign coffers are fattened by hundreds of thousands of dollars from corporate donors.
The judge in the case threw out eight of the charges. Espy was found not guilty on all of the remaining 30 charges without calling a witness.
In the past 20 years, he's kept a low profile, working quietly at a Jackson law firm.
Now, he's back.
Espy is the kind of candidate with the name-recognition and credibility that could make that progressive white/black coalition, at long last a winner.
It's no sure thing, obviously, but this is the Democrats' best shot at the Senate in 140 years.
One other tantalizing prospect: If Espy can deliver black voters to the polls in big numbers, it could also affect the other Senate race, where incumbent Republican Roger Wicker faces a crowded field, including state representative Dave Baria of Bay St. Louis, a young, rising star in the Democratic Party.
That Espy could influence both Senate races to the point that not one, but both Senate seats, could be occupied by Democrats is a dream for Democrats.
And it is the Republicans' worst nightmare.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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