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The Last Election That Matters in 2018 Could Be a Referendum on the Next Democratic Presidential Candidate

In Mississippi, white Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith is almost certainly going to win the Senate seat, defeating Mike Espy, a black Democrat. What does it say about a difficult election season for African American candidates?

Mike Epsy and Cindy Hyde-Smith Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There’s just one big 2018 election left.

On Monday evening, President Donald Trump made three appearances in three different Mississippi cities—Tupelo, Gulfport, and Biloxi—to stump for a single Republican incumbent, Cindy Hyde-Smith. “I can only make so many stops, and today, I’m making three of them in Mississippi,” Trump told the crowd in Tupelo, describing the runoff election as “the most important Senate race in your lives.” Trump stumped through Mississippi on an all-nighter to make the most of his party’s enduring majority in the Senate, despite their having badly lost the House. He’s also betting big on Trumpism’s resilience in the Deep South. “Tomorrow,” Trump instructed the Tupelo crowd, “make it not even close.”

In Mississippi, incumbent Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith faces Democratic challenger Mike Espy, a former agriculture secretary in the Clinton administration, in a runoff election. Three weeks ago, Hyde-Smith led Espy by just 0.4 percentage points in a three-way race, still failing the 50 percent threshold for popular-vote winners in the general election; hence, the runoff contest. Hyde-Smith will likely win outright Tuesday. Theoretically, she’s a safe incumbent in a Republican stronghold located deep in the only region where Democrats underperformed in this year’s midterms. For the past three weeks, the national GOP has bolstered Hyde-Smith’s natural advantage in Mississippi with a million-dollar advertising blitz on top of deploying Trump. By most indications, Hyde-Smith is a strong favorite to win reelection.

But she is a weak candidate. She’s an appointed senator with relatively low name recognition for a statewide incumbent. She’s run a nervous, press-shy campaign. And she’s succumbed to unrelenting controversies in the final stretch. Two weeks ago, Hyde-Smith, who is white, joked with a supporter about sitting “front row” at “a public hanging,” a phrase seemingly designed to antagonize Espy, who is black. Hyde-Smith has denied any racial animus in her remarks, but new reports have further underscored the racial dynamic between her and Espy. On Friday, the Jackson Free Press published an extensive report about Hyde-Smith’s support for racially segregated schools in Mississippi, including a “segregation academy” her daughter attended until graduating last year. Inevitably, the Senate election in Mississippi has become a referendum on the extreme left-right contrast in racial outlook. It’s also a worrisome referendum on black candidates running for statewide office in the Deep South.

Espy’s likely loss will echo other high-profile defeats for black Democratic challengers throughout the Deep South, like Andrew Gillum in Florida’s gubernatorial election and Stacey Abrams in Georgia’s gubernatorial election. Elsewhere, nonwhite Democrats have launched high-profile campaigns against white Republican incumbents, such as Ammar Campa-Najjar’s bid to unseat San Diego Representative Duncan Hunter in California’s 50th House District. Campa-Najjar failed too. Hunter won reelection despite his recent indictment on fraud and campaign finance charges. But the bitter House race in the 50th underscored a simple truth about the two parties: The Democrats are cultivating a generation of nonwhite candidates, while the Republicans are cultivating yet another generation of white candidates who position themselves spitefully against nonwhite people in general. Under Trump, Republicans have exacerbated their antipathy toward blacks, Mexicans, and other groups. They’ve discarded the party’s old concerns about cultivating nonwhite leadership and winning a greater share of nonwhite voters, especially black voters (Kanye West notwithstanding).

But the Democrats are hardly unified in their own racial outlook. Among themselves, Democrats disagree over whom they should prioritize in order to overcome Trumpism at the polls. In 2020 and beyond, Democrats hope to convert a greater share of white voters from the Republican base or else increase turnout among nonwhite voters who already favor Democratic candidates. These can appear to be mutually exclusive propositions: The centrist impulses toward mollification undermine the Democratic Party’s more combative, left-wing posturing on civil rights. In Florida, Gillum accused his opponent, Ron DeSantis, of courting support from white nationalists. “I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist,” Gillum quipped in one televised debate with his Republican opponent. “I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.” In Georgia, Abrams accused her opponent, Brian Kemp, of discouraging black turnout and disenfranchising black voters in his capacity at the time as secretary of state. In Mississippi, Espy has run a relatively moderate and conciliatory campaign, apparently hoping to avoid a similar fate. But Espy’s campaign, however successful, runs contrary to the GOP’s reliance on segregation and white nationalists.

In 2020, Democrats will likely consider a few black candidates, including Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, to run for president. They’ll also be fielding black candidates running in races all across the country. They’ve come a long way from Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, which was haunted by all manner of anxiety about black candidates and white voters. Abrams, Gillum, and Espy have renewed some of those fears. They’ve also helped forge an ideal future for voters and leaders in the Democratic Party. If they can win.