By: Sid Salter
Mississippi Democrats are hoping for a repeat of the political “miracle” that handed their counterparts in Alabama a U.S. Senate seat last December.
Alabama voters had not elected a Democrat to represent them in the U.S. Senate since 1986 when they chose current U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby. Shelby was elected as a Democrat in 1986 and was re-elected in 1992.
But in 1994, two years into his second term, Shelby switched parties to the GOP after Republicans won control of both houses of Congress in the 1994 mid-term elections. Shelby this week assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee, a post previously held by former U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, the Republican from Mississippi who just stepped down on April 1.
Fast-forward to 2017 in the state where Republican President Donald Trump – according to the polls – enjoys his greatest popularity. A special U.S. Senate election was held to fill the vacancy created when then-Alabama Republican U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions was named to the post of U.S. Attorney General by Trump.
In that race, marred by wild sexual misconduct allegations against controversial Republican nominee and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, Democrat Doug Jones pulled one of the biggest upsets in modern Southern political history by winning the race.
Now, in a non-partisan special election made necessary by Cochran’s retirement due to declining health, Mississippi faces a Nov. 6 special election to choose Cochran’s permanent successor. That race will pit Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith, who took office this week as Cochran interim successor in the U.S. Senate against GOP State Sen. Chris McDaniel, former Democratic U.S. Secretary of State and Mississippi congressman Mike Espy, and Democratic Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton.
After focusing over the last couple of columns on the Hyde-Smith and McDaniel standoff for winning the votes of Mississippians predisposed to vote for Republicans, let’s take a look at the choices facing state voters predisposed to vote for Democrats.
The two Democrats who have formally entered the race are a study in contrasts – not the least of which are their ages and their political experiences.
Espy, 64, a native of Yazoo City, is the scion of one of Mississippi’s most influential black political families. He is the grandson of legendary African-American businessman and entrepreneur T.J. Huddleston Sr. Espy became the first black Mississippi elected to Congress since Reconstruction in 1986 when he unseated Republican incumbent U.S. Rep Webb Franklin. He was re-elected to that post three times.
In 1993, Espy became the first African-American to hold the post of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture after being appointed by Democratic President Bill Clinton. In 1994, Espy resigned from the cabinet post after accusations and a later 30-count federal indictment alleging that he accepted over $35,000 in illegal gifts from the industries he regulated.
Espy was in 1998 acquitted of all 30 counts, with most neutral observers dismissed as appearing to be yet another political assault through the onerous and often partisan special prosecutor system in Washington. Current Republicans in Washington are complaining about the same system today.
Espy’s brother, Henry W. Espy Jr., is the former longtime mayor of Clarksdale, a post currently held by his nephew, Chuck Espy. Chuck Espy is a former four-term state legislator. That’s where Espy’s political history may hit a snag among the state’s black voters loyal to Democratic U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, seen by many as the state’s most powerful black political figure.
Thompson, D-Bolton, defeated Henry Espy in the 1993 special congressional election that first sent him to Congress as successor to Mike Espy. Chuck Espy also was an unsuccessful challenger to Thompson for his U.S. House seat in 2006.
Shelton, 41, is the Democratic wild card in the Senate race. Outside of the northeast Mississippi media market, Shelton’s name recognition is suspect when compared to Espy. Still, his success in coalition building is evidenced by his mayoral election in a town that has long favored GOP mayor.
Those factors noted, the likelihood of the Alabama “miracle” replicating in Mississippi is slight but not impossible. Proponents of open primaries should love this special election free-for-all.