Filed Under:  Politics

Cochran Resignation Could Lead to 1st Black Miss. Democratic senator

19th March 2018   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

One of the loudest advocates for ports and coastal investment in the U.S. Senate, Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran of Mississippi, announced his plan to retire effective April 1, 2018. His departure due to health conditions, almost three years before his term would normally end, puts the GOP in the position of defending yet another seat in a potentially Democratic wave year.

And there are murmurs that could grow into rumblings, that this race could elect the first ever African-American Democratic U.S. Senator from the Deep South.

Normally, “Deep Red” Mississippi would present few roadblocks to continued Republican Senatorial dominance. However, as the apparent victory of Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania’s 18th District demonstrated a week ago, the right Democrat who can appeal to rural voters can win seats that Donald Trump carried by 20 points. In fact, the national media has completely ignored a curious set of conditions which might send another rural Democrat possessed of moderate social views — Mike Espy—back to Washington come November.

Hailing from the waterlogged “Birth Place of the Blues”, the Mississippi Delta, former Congressman and Clinton-era U.S. Agriculture Secretary opted almost immediately “to declare my strong intention” to run for Cochran’s seat.

He is the offspring of a legendary political family in “the Delta,” one of the only rural, agricultural regions of the nation comprised of a supermajority electorate of African Americans. Thanks to his long-time focus on rural issues, Espy is the one Democrat—regardless of skin-color—who could build a bipartisan coalition to emerge victorious in this very Trump state, at least if Chris McDaniel, a hated figure by Mississippi establishment Republicans, is his opponent.

Call it a re-run of the Alabama election with a Pennsylvania Twist. Black voters in the waterlogged Delta joining with suburban whites in Jackson and on the coast to provide victory over a Republican too Right-wing for moderate GOP voters. It would be a strange, but interesting result in a state with such a troubled racial history.

As a former Mississippi Governor once observed, “No state has come so far in race relations as Mississippi, but no state had further to go.”

Espy has pulled off such a victory before, becoming the first Black Congressman from Mississippi in 100 years. A lifelong Baptist campaigning in a religious area, Espy adopted the slogan in his 1986, “Stand by Me, Pray for Me, Vote for Me.”

Espy very effectively crossed the deep racial divide to court white voters, as well. Describing the balancing act required by his strategy, Espy said, “You must excite your Black voters and not incite your White voters.” He promised to combat the agricultural depression that plagued his Caucasian constituents (widely known as “planters” in local circles), touting a letter from then-House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas promising him a seat on the powerful Agriculture Committee.

Espy’s strategy succeeded. He claimed 12 percent of the Caucasian turnout, while many other white voters stayed home in a show of de facto support. Espy defeated Republican Incumbent Webb Franklin’s 52 to 48 percent, winning his first elective office and becoming the only Black Representative in the 100th Congress (1987–1989) to represent a rural district.

The advantage that the former African-American Congressman and Cabinet Secretary enjoys rest sin the political dimensions of the Mississippi Delta itself. For those interested in levees and coastal issues, the idea that a region existing due to the vagaries of water management hundreds of miles from an Ocean, Gulf, or Great Lake might seem strange.

Still, the Delta’s hundreds of square miles remain one of the most fertile agricultural regions in the United States. It’s not surprising no place in the South re-created the plantation economy as completely as the Delta after the Civil War, spawning an African-American majority electorate today of over 72 percent, and making Mississippi the “Blackest state” in the nation at 37 percent, with its largest number of African-American elected officials.

When sharecropping gave way to tractors, no place grew poorer than the Delta as well. The nexus of the “Great Migration” of the early Twentieth Century, the music that emerged from segregated ‘juke joints’ throughout its lands would create not only the Blues, but would jump the racial barrier to rock and roll. Even today, driving from Clarksdale to Indianola to Yazoo City, one feels the beat of the land.

And, one learns quickly that the Delta is loyal to its own. Few encompass the political aspirations more than the Espy family. The former Congressman turned Clinton Cabinet member comes from the first family of Clarksdale politics. The Espys dominated the Mayor’s office and local politics while Mike was in Washington. Their influence remains even today, and they are known for their ability to turnout voters when other Black politicians cannot.

Part of this was helped by Espy himself. Both as a Congressman and Ag Secretary, he championed federal grants for “Catfish Farming,” the growth industry in the Delta, and is still honored by White landowners because of it. So much so that his popularity suffered little in either the Delta or Mississippi despite the ethics questions that drove him from office.

Resigning as Ag Secretary on December 31, 1994, amidst indictment on federal bribery and fraud charges, Espy was later acquitted. He came home and remained prominent in Mississippi politics, practicing law in Jackson, and staying close to the statewide Democratic leaders, such as current Attorney General Jim Hood. Over the intervening decades, Espy positioned himself for just the right race.

Nevertheless, Espy’s election would normally prove impossible save for the unique rules under which Mississippi special elections operate, and the fact that the special election will occur simultaneous to the federal mid-terms in November, offering a unique opportunity for higher Black turnout. Special election rules in Mississippi will make the contest nonpartisan — foregoing primaries in favor of a November free-for-all in which candidates’ party affiliation will not appear on the ballot. If no candidate wins a majority of the vote, the top two will compete in a runoff election.

Mississippi Republican Governor Phil Bryant is sure to appoint a mainstream Republican choice to the seat by April 1st. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, and Agriculture & Commerce Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith are viable options and each may be willing to stage a special election bid. Yet the wildcard remains State Senator Chris McDaniel.

The Tea Party favorite almost unseated Thad Cochran in the GOP Primary in 2014, with the Republican incumbent only saved by support by African-American ministers getting their congregants to register Republican and vote for Cochran over McDaniel. “Remember 2014” has become McDaniel’s clarion call, losing only 49 – 51 percent.

On last Wednesday, McDaniel opted to drop his primary bid against Mississippi’s other sitting GOP Senator Roger Wicker and run in the open primary to succeed Cochran with the words, “By announcing early, we are asking Mississippi Republicans to unite around my candidacy and avoid another contentious contest among GOP members that would only improve the Democrats’ chances of winning the open seat.”

In Special Election’s nonpartisan setup, every candidate runs together. As the Clarion Herald newspaper noted, “[That] has the potential to help Democrats, because Mississippi is two things: Very Republican and very inelastic, meaning it has very few persuadable voters and doesn’t swing much from one election to the next. Most voters in Mississippi reliably vote for either Republicans or Democrats. Under normal circumstances, that makes it extremely difficult for any Democrat to claw his or her way to 50 percent of the vote, but in a campaign without party labels (or at least where they aren’t front and center), the lead weight that is a ‘D’ next to one’s name is partially lifted.”

A faceoff between Espy and McDaniel would have parallels to the recent Alabama Special election, but with a difference. While Washington Republicans note that McDaniel would not have Roy Moore’s teenage sex scandals, often unremarked is that Mississippi is a far less “Red” state than Alabama. Trump might have won the Camellia State by 28 points, but he won the Magnolia State by just 18 points. Mitt Romney won Mississippi by only 12.

Suddenly, the comparisons to the Pennsylvania Congressional special election become more acute — except, of course, that Mike Espy is Black, and Democrats have not won a Senate Seat in Mississippi since 1982. In a wave election, though, facing McDaniel with his long history of controversial statements, Espy might have a chance.

McDaniel has blamed hip-hop for gun violence, said movies should have more Muslim villains, spoken before pro-Confederate organizations, and dismissed Women’s Marchers as “unhappy liberal women.”

The last time a pollster asked Mississippi voters to choose between McDaniel and a Democrat, the Democrat wasn’t too far behind. It’s not so impossible to imagine.

This article originally published in the March 19, 2018 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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