The 2018 midterm elections saw strong performances from Democratic candidates who liberals hoped would steer their mainly conservative communities in new directions. From Stacey Abrams’s quest to be America’s first black female governor to Andrew Gillum’s race to be the first black governor of Florida, the midterms featured multiple stories of candidates such as Rep.-elect Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) and Sen.-elect Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) who were able to win — or came really close — in seats once considered impossible for liberals like them to take.
But the race for the Senate seat in Mississippi wasn’t ever one of those — and part of that has to with the state’s identity politics. While people often seem to lump all the South into one big box, the states are different in significant ways that made Hyde-Smith’s victory an easier one than those for Republican winners such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), former representative Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) and Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp.
Texas, Georgia and Florida all have more urban centers — and with larger populations and more diverse demographics — than Mississippi. Those urban centers are surrounded by more suburbs filled with the type of highly educated professionals whose votes swung left to deliver big wins to Democrats across the country.
Mississippi, by comparison, has just one urban center — the Greater Jackson area — with a total population of less than 579,000. The state has fewer professional and graduate schools than Georgia, Florida and Texas and an electorate that is already about 15 points more Republican than the national average.
And as much as Mississippi political watchers looked to Alabama’s election of Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in 2017 for inspiration, the fact is that that Senate race was very different from this one. While former judge Roy Moore also said offensive things about black people — including that the last time America was great was when black people were slaves — the conservative evangelical Christian also faced multiple allegations of sexually assaulting teenage girls while in his 30s, which he denied.
Hyde-Smith was not accused of illegal activity. And Jones, a white man, never had race become the center focus of his campaign and was perhaps a more attractive alternative to white swing voters in Alabama than Espy, the great-grandson of slaves known in part for repeatedly breaking racial barriers, was to white voters grappling with “cultural anxiety” about the increased diversification of America.
But while it was still unlikely that Espy would take the seat, he did overperform in some ways — perhaps because the blue wave that swept the country meant that even though some Democrats did not win their races, they still overperformed. Trump beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by nearly 18 points in Mississippi two years ago. But with 99 percent of precincts reporting Tuesday night, Hyde-Smith was leading Espy by only eight points. And despite losing, Espy is still on track to get more votes than former senator Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), the lawmaker Hyde-Smith replaced, did in 2014. This suggests that while Mississippi remains a red state, it is not as solidly red as it once was — even two years ago.
The demographics of the state’s population may not be quickly changing, but the tolerance for the rhetoric and policies promoted by politicians such as Hyde-Smith and the president who endorsed her are declining in Mississippi, similarly to other places in the South. While some on the left might still be discouraged by Tuesday’s loss, the results are reason to believe that a Democratic candidate who can continue to motivate the left’s base while winning over some Republican voters could eventually turn one of the country’s reddest states blue.