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Could Democrats pull off another Deep South surprise in Mississippi Senate race?

Democratic consultant Joe Trippi helped Doug Jones win a Senate seat in Alabama last winter, and he thinks his party might be able to pull off another surprise in the Deep South again this year in Mississippi.

“The pieces are in play that make it possible,” Trippi said in a phone interview. “So far it’s played out as well as it could.”

Trippi is a media adviser to Mike Espy, the Democrat running for U.S. Senate in the Magnolia State. It’s essentially the same role Trippi played for Jones when the Democrat beat Roy Moore — the hard-right Republican battling sexual-assault accusations — in a Senate special election there last December.

Chris McDaniel, a state senator, is one of two Republicans running in a special election Nov. 6 to replace Sen. Thad Cochran, a Republican who retired last spring for health reasons. Although he doesn’t have Moore’s personal baggage, McDaniel is cut from the same cloth politically, and his persistence in the race over the opposition of more mainstream Republicans is what gives Espy supporters hope.

Espy is a former congressman and served as secretary of agriculture in the Clinton administration until his resignation amid allegations of receiving illegal gifts. He was indicted and tried by a special counsel but acquitted of all charges.

Democrat Mike Espy speaking in Jackson, Miss., July 20, 2018. (Photo: Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

If elected, Espy would be the first African-American senator from Mississippi since Reconstruction. And the outcome of the election, which the political analysts at fivethirtyeight.com call “the most complicated race on the November ballot, and one of the hardest to forecast,” could conceivably tip the balance in the Senate.

The reason that Trippi and the Democrats are hopeful is that just like in Alabama, Republicans are attacking each other, while the Democratic base is energized and unified by its opposition to President Trump.

Espy’s main rivals are McDaniel, who came very close to beating Cochran in 2014 and still believes that election was stolen from him, and the incumbent, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, who was appointed to Cochran’s seat earlier this year by Gov. Phil Bryant.

McDaniel has been attacking Hyde-Smith, a former state senator herself, over her past as a Democrat (she switched parties in 2010). He has pressed her to admit who she voted for in the 2008 presidential election. Hyde-Smith said she couldn’t remember, but a friend said she’d supported Hillary Clinton.

But President Trump, heeding the lesson of the Jones-Moore race, has endorsed Hyde-Smith. Trump stood by Moore after several women said he had sexually assaulted them in the late 1970s, in part because Trump adviser Steve Bannon championed Moore’s cause. That ended badly, and since then, Trump has followed the political advice of establishment Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, much more closely.

McDaniel and Moore come from the same lane of Republican politics: populist, hardline conservative on social issues, and dismissive of the idea that systemic racism is behind the deep inequality between blacks and whites in the South. He doesn’t want to go to the Senate to collaborate. He wants to fight the establishment, and McConnell in particular.

But Trump seems to have learned that populist rage doesn’t always work in politics. It may have helped him win the presidency, but to pass his agenda he needs team players in the Senate.

U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss. (Photo: Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

The polling so far shows Hyde-Smith and Espy leading. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote on Nov. 6, then the top two go into a three-week runoff, culminating on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving.

But state and national Republicans don’t want to take any chances on McDaniel sneaking into the runoff, which they fear he could lose. If the runoff pits Hyde-Smith against Espy, Republicans (and fivethirtyeight.com) like her chances a lot better. So the GOP establishment is supporting a super-PAC that is backing Hyde-Smith by running ads against McDaniel.

Trippi said that regardless of which Republican makes the runoff, the “schism in the Republican Party” will leave supporters of the third-place candidate disaffected and disinclined to vote in the second round.

“Had [establishment choice] Luther Strange won in Alabama, I think a good chunk of the Roy Moore base would have sat on their hands and been disgusted with a RINO [Republican In Name Only]. That is in full flower in Mississippi,” Trippi said.

Republican strategists disagree. “If there is a pocket of voters who are pissed off after the election, they’re going to come home because Mississippi is with Trump,” said a national Republican operative who is working on the race, and who requested anonymity in order to speak more frankly.

Republican politics have changed since 2014, when McDaniel almost won the Senate seat, said this GOP operative. In 2014, “it was all based in the 2010 messaging of the Constitution and these are our conservative values. You still see some of that but what matters in our primaries today is how close you are to Trump and how much you are like Trump. It’s no longer what is your Heritage score or did you sign Grover [Norquist’s] tax pledge. That’s just not what we do anymore.”

State Sen. Chris McDaniel in Ellisville, Miss., earlier this year. (Photo: Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

McDaniel is “the Joe Arpaio of this situation,” the national Republican said, referring to the disgraced former sheriff in Arizona who finished third in the recent Republican primary there.

In a phone interview, McDaniel rejected any responsibility for the reputation he has acquired of a Southern conservative who is at best tone-deaf on issues of race, and at worst an outright racist.

“I think all of it is unfair,” McDaniel said, saying the press tries to “get these gotcha moments and magnify them and somehow disqualify people for a statement out of context.”

Yet McDaniel stretched the facts about his comments last Friday during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” when he was booed by a live audience for saying that African-Americans have long been “begging for scraps” from the federal government.

“In my mind I was always thinking about the people of Mississippi. You’ll see I used even the word ‘we’ve’. ‘We’ve been dead last,’” he said.

But McDaniel was explicitly asked on the show what he would say to the state’s black population to persuade them that he was not “a danger to them.” And he responded by saying: “I am going to ask them, after 100 years, after 100 years of relying on big government to save you, where are you today? After 100 years of begging for federal government scraps, where are you today?”

As the live audience began to loudly boo, McDaniel scrambled, and said he was not describing African-Americans in the state, but everyone. “I mean the state of Mississippi. I’m talking about the state of Mississippi.”

When I asked him if he had realized in the moment that he had made a mistake, McDaniel said he had not. “I stand by the comments. I’m not gonna back down from them,” he said.

I also asked McDaniel about his comment dismissing the allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault when he was in high school. “These allegations, 99 percent of the time, are just absolutely fabricated,” McDaniel said in a radio interview Monday.

Brett Kavanaugh on the third day of his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing, Sept. 6, 2018. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Credible scientific studies have shown that less than 10 percent of sexual assault or rape accusations are false. McDaniel said he was not referring specifically to sexual assault cases but to all “political allegations.”

On the hot-button issue of Confederate monuments, he called for an “intellectual approach … to discuss these issues, talk about it, debate the issues, allow new generations to hear the debate … Learn from it and then move forward together.”

But McDaniel showed no interest in some of the proposed compromises meant to foster reconciliation and unity, such as moving some of the most controversial monuments to museums and out of places of civic honor. “When you talk about contextualizing, it begs the question: Who’s going to write the history?” he said.

The answer to that question historically has been that the victors write the history. And so far, McDaniel’s unapologetic candidacy has failed to put him in the position of either winner or history-writer.

If a substantial portion of Republican voters are similarly hardheaded and decide they will sit out a potential runoff, that could make Espy’s quest an interesting one to watch.

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