Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith’s victory in Mississippi’s Senate election runoff was closer than usual in the GOP-dominated Deep South state. But she still was never really threatened by Democrat Mike Espy in Tuesday’s contest, which brought the state’s long history of racial politics into sharp relief.
Some takeaways as Hyde-Smith, who was initially appointed to succeed former Sen. Thad Cochran, returns to Washington as the first woman elected to represent Mississippi on Capitol Hill:
RACIAL POLITICS STILL DOMINANT
In the end, Hyde-Smith defeated Espy by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent — much closer than the cakewalk many predicted in a reliably red state that President Donald Trump won by 17 points in 2016. The contest was the latest reminder that race remains a potent factor in the region’s polarized partisan politics. Espy was seeking to become Mississippi’s first black senator since Reconstruction.
Ahead of the runoff, a video surfaced of Hyde-Smith praising a supporter by saying, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” For many black voters, the comment harkened back to the state’s dark past of lynchings during the Jim Crow era. They were galvanized by her remarks and saw their votes as a rejection of racism. Many whites dismissed accusations that Hyde-Smith’s comments were racist.
Her statement was widely seen as a dogwhistle, similar to comments made in Florida by then-Republican gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis, who warned voters not to “monkey up” the election by voting for Andrew Gillum, who lost his bid to become the state’s first black governor. It also echoed comments by President Donald Trump, who cast Gillum as incompetent and Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams as unqualified.
STRONG BLACK TURNOUT NOT ENOUGH
Black voters came out for Espy, but it wasn’t enough, given the overall makeup of Mississippi’s electorate and white voters’ overwhelming loyalty to Republicans, even among suburban whites who elsewhere nationally trended toward Democrats in the 2018 midterms.
Espy’s biggest challenge was simply that Mississippi doesn’t have a metro area comparable to Atlanta or Nashville, Tennessee, or Charlotte, North Carolina — growing population centers where white voters are considerably more likely to support Democrats than their counterparts in small towns.
Yet even in Mississippi counties that fit the suburban model — better educated, more affluent — voters stuck with Hyde-Smith. Her 71 percent in Rankin County and 54 percent in Madison County (both outside the Democratic stronghold of Jackson) put her just a few percentage points behind Trump’s 2016 marks in those counties.
That’s a contrast even to other recent Deep South elections.
In Georgia, Abrams lost the governor’s race by just 1.4 percentage points in no small part because she won large suburban counties like Cobb and Gwinnett in metro Atlanta. In Alabama’s 2017 Senate special election, Democratic Sen. Doug Jones capitalized on Republican Roy Moore’s weaknesses not by winning large suburban counties, but by vastly outperforming Democrats’ usual marks.
Espy’s almost 409,000 votes statewide was 84 percent of Hillary Clinton’s vote count against Trump in 2016. By comparison, Jones managed 92 percent of presidential turnout in his Alabama victory. In Georgia, Abrams actually exceeded Clinton’s 2016 mark. If Espy had managed that on Tuesday, he’d have won: Clinton got 485,131 votes. Unofficial returns show Hyde-Smith at 479,365.
SOME AFRICAN-AMERICAN GAINS
Despite the Democratic loss in the state’s marquee race, civil rights groups and grassroots organizers point to down-ballot gains, particularly in judicial contests. High black voter turnout elected two black women to the circuit court in Hinds County, giving the county an all-black bench for the first time ever, including three black women.
The wins mirror gains in Texas, where 19 black women were elected to judgeships earlier this month, and Alabama, where a record nine black women judges were elected in last year’s special election.
Down-ballot candidates and issues also benefitted from high black turnout this midterm cycle in Georgia — where Lucy McBath, a black woman, unseated incumbent Republican Rep. Karen Handel, flipping a seat once held by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — and in Florida, where voters supported restoring voting rights to tens of thousands of former felons.
With an increased focus on issues of criminal justice and voting rights, such victories could have more of an impact on voters’ daily lives.
Mississippi isn’t used to having backbencher senators. From 1947 to 2007, the state sent just four senators to Washington. It wasn’t long ago that Mississippi’s Senate team consisted of Cochran as chairman of the Appropriations Committee and Trent Lott as majority leader, both of them specializing in fast-tracking federal money back to their home state.
Now, the senior senator is Roger Wicker, who has been in office since Dec. 31, 2007, but will find himself behind more than a dozen Republican colleagues on the seniority list when Congress convenes in January. Hyde-Smith won’t be at the back of the line — her months as an appointed senator put her ahead of the GOP freshmen just elected in November — but she’s close.
Certainly, Washington is different than in Cochran’s prime, with budget earmarks no longer at the center of every negotiation. But for a small, economically disadvantaged state that’s long depended on federal influence, the 116th Congress will be new territory.
NO PERFECT FORMULA FOR SOUTHERN DEMOCRATS
Democrats have made key gains in recent elections in the South, but there’s no perfect formula for winning statewide.
Espy, a former Cabinet official under President Bill Clinton, ran as a moderate with experience reaching across the aisle. Georgia’s Abrams and Florida’s Gillum ran as unabashed liberals and nearly pulled out wins in governor’s races that would have been historic. Democrats in Alabama and South Carolina nominated white men — relatively young, relatively moderate — for governor.
All of them lost: Abrams and Gillum had narrow margins; Espy ran strong but wasn’t close; Alabama and South Carolina were the usual Republican routs.
The lesson: Candidates matter, but so does the electorate. The three closest races made the case that Democrats shoudn’t cede the South, and that tests of electability shouldn’t be limited to white men.
The next test comes in Georgia, where a Dec. 4 runoff for secretary of state pits Democrat John Barrow, a 63-year-old moderate former congressman, against a little-known Republican state lawmaker. After that, the focus shifts to Louisiana, where Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards will seek re-election in 2019 four years after upsetting his Republican rival, then-Sen. David Vitter.
Insurgent Democratic women running for Congress are pushing the party to rethink its approach to politics if they retake control of Capitol Hill in the fall.
At the annual meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus Friday, black female candidates who prevailed in primaries over established incumbents said it’s time for a conversation about how the party is structured. They expressed frustration that the party is tilted against rising politicians — especially those of color — and argued that if Democrats flip the House in November, it would be the result of organization and turnout amount black voters, particularly women.
If that happens, the candidates said, gratitude won’t be enough. They want a seat at the leadership table and a role in re-examining how the party works.
“It is not enough to just talk about a blue wave and Democrats being in the majority,” said Ayanna Pressley, the Boston city councilwoman now poised to become Massachusetts’ first black congresswoman. “What matters is who are those Democrats? We have to have a conversation about the guts and the soul of this party.”
Pressley won her primary last month by 18 points after challenging a 10-term incumbent initially endorsed by the Congressional Black Caucus. Without a Republican challenger in the general election, she appears to have a clear path to Congress. Her comments foreshadow the challenges that lie ahead if Democrats regain control of the House in November. The party will have to reconcile the anti-establishment energy of a diverse set of freshmen with a leadership structure dominated by lawmakers who are mostly white and have held office for decades.
Connecticut House Democratic nominee Jahana Hayes also challenged a state political veteran to win her shot at becoming the state’s first black congresswoman. The former National Teacher of the Year told the CBC audience that she lacked support during her primary.
“Everyone said, ‘You don’t have the network, no one knows you.’ I had never run for political office, I had no money,” Hayes said. “I’m doing this for the people who don’t have a voice.”
Since her recent win with 62 percent of the vote, Hayes said, “it’s popular to support me now.”
After black women “showed up and showed out” this primary season, they are taking their rightful place, said Rep. Terri Sewell, who in 2010 was elected Alabama’s first black congresswoman. The Selma Democrat was instrumental in Sen. Doug Jones’ special election last winter, when he became the first Democrat to represent Alabama in the Senate in 25 years.
“We’ve been the backbone of the Democratic Party for a long time and we’re finally getting our due,” said Sewell. “There were a whole bunch of people he doesn’t even know that did a whole bunch of work to help him get there.”
Those people were the black women who often work with little or no financial support for infrastructure, she said.
“We need to activate the people on the ground who have been doing this work for free,” Sewell said. “They need resources. It’s not just about a seat at the table.”
LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund, agreed, noting that grassroots groups like hers have long filled the gap when the official party apparatus was absent.
“It’s our table,” said Brown, who galvanized black women to support Jones. “We have to have some really deep conversations about how the landscape has changed.”
That also includes addressing priorities within the party, Pressley said.
“I reject the notion that this is about working class white folk and everyone else!” Pressley told the cheering crowd. “I reject the notion that we’re going to have an actual debate about if we are the party of jobs and the economy, or of criminal justice reform. I’m not choosing.”
Some CBC meeting attendees noted the party has made efforts this cycle. This summer, the Democratic National Committee launched an initiative aimed at black women. After voting overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in 2016, many black women said they felt ignored or taken for granted by the party. Instead of being looked to as saviors, black women are calling for roles as decision and agenda makers.
This week’s gathering of black lawmakers also spotlighted black women’s political influence and impact. Much of the CBC agenda was focused squarely on black women and their issues, with black women as panelists, honorees and framers of much of the discussion.
“They’re not leading this nation in health care or pay, but when it comes to the democracy of this nation, black women are leading the way, and we need to be talking about those issues and more,” said New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who along with California Sen. Kamala Harris — the Senate’s only black woman — served as the convention’s honorary co-chair.
New York Congresswoman Yvette Clark, echoed his sentiments Thursday evening at an awards event honoring CBC women.
“The sisters on the Hill are definitely running things,” said Clark, one of 21 women in the caucus.
“When I think about the blue wave hitting and seeing Congresswoman Maxine Waters bring down the gavel, as chair of financial services, I get excited,” said Clark, currently the ranking Democrat on the committee. “When I think about Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson bringing down that gavel, as chair of the committee on science and technology, I get excited.”
Waikinya Clanton, the DNC’s African-American Outreach Chair, encouraged the pressure to change the party dynamic toward black women candidates and voters.
“We need you all’s support, whether that comes in the form of criticism or whatever,” said Clanton. “One of the reasons I came to the party was because that was valid. I believed that I could only make the change that I needed by being there. All these people who haven’t for a long time felt like this was their party, feel like this is their party now because I’m there and I’m doing the work every single day.”
Florida’s midterm Senate election is a race to watch this November – and not just because it will be a tight match pitting a sitting governor, Republican Rick Scott, against a sitting senator, Democrat Bill Nelson.
Florida is home to the country’s largest foreign-born black population. One in three black Miami metropolitan region residents today is an immigrant, according to the Pew Research Center. Many are from the Caribbean.
I have studied voting patterns of African-Americans, Cape Verdeans and West Indians in four cities: Boston, Chicago, Miami and New York City.
I discovered that while these populations are mostly Democratic, foreign-born black communities in all four cities are more willing than African-Americans to put aside partisan differences and vote Republican.
Haitians, in particular, lean in a more conservative direction than African-Americans and other Caribbean communities. My research found that Haitian voters in Boston, Chicago, Miami and New York City are more likely to identify as moderate or conservative than African-Americans.
Haitians are also more likely to be members of the Republican Party and to run for office as Republicans. The first and only Haitian-American in Congress, Mia Love of Utah’s 4th district, is a Republican.
In Florida, almost 4 percent of the Haitian-born population is Republican, according to University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith. Just under 20 percent of Florida’s Haitian Americans are Democrats. Many others are not registered voters in the U.S., though they may remain active in Haitian politics.
As I outline in my book, Celestin’s campaign appealed directly to Haitian voters in this municipality of 60,000, by arguing that they needed their own political representation in a largely African-American city historically governed by white elected officials.
The 2001 election brought not just Celestin to power but also put a Haitian-American majority onto the five-member city council, ushering in a new era in North Miami politics. Haitian voters had successfully replaced the city’s old white political leadership with new black leadership.
All of this means that neither Florida Senate candidate should take black voters for granted in November.
Nelson, the Democratic sitting senator, has tradition on his side. Black Floridians – like African-Americans nationwide – have voted overwhelmingly Democratic in every election since 1948. In 2012, higher-than-usual black turnout for Barack Obama helped Nelson handily secure his second Senate term.
Florida’s Trinidad-born Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll was the first black female Republican elected to the Florida legislature and the first black Republican woman on a statewide ticket when she ran as Scott’s running mate in 2010.
Scott alienates black voters
Carroll resigned in 2013 amid accusations of financial impropriety. She later wrote a book accusing Scott of treating her like an “unwanted stepchild” and using her to win black and female votes.
Faced with a Democratic candidate who supports same-sex marriage and a Republican candidate with a dubious religous affliation, will Black voters sit out this year’s presidential election. A wave of news reports over the past few weeks have raised that question.
“Some black clergy see no good presidential choice between a Mormon candidate and one who supports same-sex marriage, so they are telling their flocks to stay home on Election Day,” observed a widely circulated Associated Press report. It continues: “The pastors say their congregants are asking how a true Christian could back same-sex marriage, as President Barack Obama did in May. As for Republican Mitt Romney, the first Mormon nominee from a major party, congregants are questioning the theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its former ban on men of African descent in the priesthood.”
A separate report from NPR’s All Things Considered homed in on African American Christians in the all-important swing state of Ohio. In the Youngstown area, where Obama won the majority of Black votes handily in 2008, reporter Allison Keyes spoke to parishioners at Friendship Baptist Church about their mixed feelings regarding the election. “I’m really in prayer as to what to do, whether to vote,” said Betty Washington. “I’ve never not voted. But it’s very disheartening to me to hear some of the things that are going on.” She worries about President Obama’s support of same-sex marriage. Brian Hughes is conflicted about the president’s gay marriage stance as well, but as an employee at the local GM plant, he gives Obama credit for saving hundreds of jobs in the area. Friendship’s pastor Julius Davis believes Preisdent Obama is undermining the impact of Christian churches. He adds, “If I were to vote today, I’d vote for Romney.”
In the Associated Press report, the Rev. George Nelson Jr., senior pastor of Grace Fellowship Baptist Church in Brenham, Texas, registered dissatisfaction with Obama’s gay marriage decision, but appeared even more put off by the prospect of voting for Romney, whose religion is looked upon as a cult in his Southern Baptist circles.
The Rev. Floyd James of Greater Rock Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago wonders why Romney’s religous affiliation hasn’t been put under the same scrutiny as that of Obama’s church during the 2008 campaign. “Obama was supposed to answer for the things that Rev. Wright said,” remarked Floyd. “Yet here’s a guy (Romney) who was a leader in his own church that has that kind of history, and he isn’t held to some kind of account? I have a problem with that.”
Will lingering ambivalence about both candidates keep Black voters away from the polls come November 6? A recent survey suggested Mitt Romney might receive less than 1 percent of the Black vote, but with tight races in key states, Barack Obama still needs every bit of the Black support he received in 2008. If Black Christians who supported him last time stay away, will that leave an opening for Romney to prevail?
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