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Decision 2020: 14 Southern U.S. Senate seats on November ballot, with 4 possible flips

Races in North Carolina, Alabama on national radar; Lindsey Graham faces stiff challenge in South Carolina

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

Fourteen Southern U.S. Senate seats will be on the ballot in November, putting half of the South’s seats in play with control of the chamber very much up for grabs.

Of these seats, one presents a likely pickup opportunity for Republicans, while three Republican incumbents are facing stiff challenges. Three other seats are somewhat competitive but with incumbents still favored, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell‘s race in Kentucky.

Five senators — four Republicans and one Democrat — are cruising toward re-election, with Republicans also likely to keep an open seat in Tennessee. A special election in Georgia with candidates from both parties running in the same race is a wild card that will be difficult to predict — and could potentially decide which part controls the Senate when the dust clears.

Here is your guide to the 2020 Southern Senate races.

Possible Flips

1. Alabama: U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D) vs. Tommy Tuberville (R)

Jones has had a target on his back since he won a special election in 2017 over Republican Roy Moore, whose candidacy imploded in a sex scandal. Jones was the first Democrat elected to a Senate seat in the Yellowhammer State since 1992; his vote to convict President Donald Trump in his impeachment trial has put his continued tenure in jeopardy. Tuberville, the former head football coach at Auburn University, is making his political debut, impressively taking out a field of prominent Republicans in the primary, including Jeff Sessions, who held this seat for 20 years before leaving to join the Trump administration. If Jones somehow manages to hang on, it will be perhaps the biggest surprise on election night.

2. North Carolina: U.S. Senator Thom Tillis (R) vs.  Cal Cunningham (D)

Cunningham, an attorney who served a single term in the legislature 20 years ago and made an unsuccessful Senate bid in 2010, was recruited by Democratic leaders in Washington to run against Tillis, who is seeking a second term after ousting former Democratic Senator Kay Hagin in 2014. This seat was once held by Jesse Helms, and no one has managed to win a second term since he gave it up in 2002. Cunningham has raised $15 million, slightly more than Tillis, and has led consistently in polls. The outcome of the presidential race in this battleground state may be key here. If Donald Trump wins, Tillis is likely to keep his seat as well; if he doesn’t, Cunningham will be in the driver’s seat.

3. South Carolina: U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R) vs. Jaime Harrison (D)

Over the past four years, Graham has become one of Trump’s biggest cheerleaders, after spending much of the 2016 campaign trashing him. That about-face spared him from the kind of primary challenge he had to beat back in 2014, but Harrison, a former state Democratic party chair, is hoping Graham’s association with the president will turn off enough Palmetto State voters to put him over the top. Harrison has raised a staggering $30 million — an unheard of sum for a Democrat in South Carolina — to stay even with the incumbent in the money chase. While polling shows the race is competitive, Trump is expected to carry the state, and the universe of Trump-Harrison voters may be too small to flip this seat.

4. Georgia: U.S Senator David Perdue (R) vs. Jon Ossoff (D)

It’s been a long time since Georgia has been competitive in a presidential or senatorial contest, but polling has shown Ossoff within striking distance of Perdue, who is seeking a second term. Ossoff built a national profile by raising more than $30 million for a special U.S. House election in 2017 that he narrowly lost. He hasn’t raised anywhere near that kind of money this time around, and Perdue enjoys a 2-to-1 fundraising advantage. Democrats insist that the Peach State’s changing demographics and an influx of newly energized, newly registered Democratic voters will lead to victory for Ossoff and Democratic nominee Joe Biden; Republicans scoff at such a scenario as delusional. If Biden makes a serious play for Georgia, it could help Ossoff; if Biden wins, Perdue will need to run ahead of Trump to survive.

Less Competitive

1. Texas: U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R) vs. MJ Hegar (D)

Democrats had high hopes for flipping this seat, particularly after Beto O’Rourke nearly took out Ted Cruz in 2018. But O’Rourke passed on the Senate race to make a quixotic bid for president, and Hegar, a former military chopper pilot and Afghan war veteran who lost a House race in 2018, had to spend time and money fighting her way through a primary runoff. Cornyn entered the fall campaign with the benefit of incumbency and a huge financial advantage, in a state that hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1988. This could turn out to be a might-have-been race for Democrats — what might have been if O’Rouke had run instead.

2. Kentucky: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) vs. Amy McGrath (D)

Democratic leaders recruited McGrath for this race, enthused by her prodigious fundraising during an unsuccessful House race in 2018. But running against McConnell in Kentucky is a tall order, and she has not always seemed up to the task. Her campaign had an unsteady launch when she flipped positions on confirming Brett Kavanaugh, and she very nearly lost the Democratic primary after mishandling her response to racial justice protests that have roiled Louisville. After an uneven campaign, she decided change campaign managers in August, which is never a good sign. There’s a reason Mitch McConnell has been a senator since 1985 — he is perhaps the wiliest politician of his generation. His tenure in Washington seems likely to endure.

3. Mississippi: U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) vs. former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy (D)

This race is a rematch of 2018, when Hyde-Smith beat Espy by 8 points in a special election runoff, running nearly 10 points behind what Trump did in 2016. Espy was encouraged enough by his showing to try to take her down again, hoping that the energy unleashed by social justice protests will galvanize black voters, who make up 37percent of the state’s electorate, the highest percentage in the country. However, if he couldn’t beat Hyde-Smith in a lower turnout midterm election, beating her with the presidential election on the ballot, in a very pro-Trump state, is likely to be a tall order.

Wild Card

Georgia: U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler (R) vs. U.S. Rep. Doug Collins (R), Raphael Warnock (D) and Matt Lieberman (D)

In this special election to fill the seat vacated by Johnny Isakson, candidates from all parties run in the same race, with the top two vote-getters advancing to a December runoff. Loeffler is trying to keep this seat after being appointed to the post by Gov. Brian Kemp, who opted to pick the political newcomer instead of Collins, one of Trump’s biggest champions in the House. Collins defied the governor to run against Loeffler, splitting Peach State Republicans into two camps.

On the Democratic side, Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, has drawn support from the party establishment who see him as the best option to win the seat. But Lieberman, the son of former Connecticut U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, has resisted pressure to leave the race in favor of Warnock, and polls have shown him remaining competitive. If Warnock and Lieberman split the Democratic vote, it could clear the way for both Loeffler and Collins to meet in an all-GOP second round. If one Republican and one Democrat get through, the outcome of the race is likely to depend on who those two candidates are.

Shoo-Ins

Arkansas: U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (R) faces no Democratic competition after the lone Democrat who qualified abruptly left the race. The only person standing between Cotton and re-election is Libertarian Ricky Harrington.

Tennessee: Republican Bill Hagerty, the former U.S. ambassador to Japan, has a much easier path to Washington after the Democrat recruited and financed by party leaders to challenge for the seat lost his primary. He will now face Marquita Bradshaw, an environmental activist from Memphis who harnessed grassroots support to win the primary.

West Virginia: U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R) is not expected to have much trouble against Democrat Paula Jean Swearengin, an environmental activist who gained national exposure when her 2018 race against the state’s other U.S. senator, Joe Manchin, was featured in the Netflix documentary “Knock Down The House.”

Oklahoma: If U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe (R), as expected, wins a fifth full term over Democrat Abby Broyles, he will be 92 when this term ends in 2026. Broyles, a former TV reporter in Oklahoma City, has run a spirited campaign in which she’s needled the senator for refusing to debate her.

Virginia: Giving the Old Dominion’s increasingly Democratic tilt, U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D) is a clear favorite over Republican Daniel Gade, a former Army officer who was wounded in Iraq and now teaches at American University in Washington.

Louisiana: U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy (R) is competing in a jungle primary in November and will face a runoff in December if he doesn’t clear 50%. He avoided any major Republican opposition; the biggest Democratic name in the race is Shreveport Mayor Adrian Perkins.

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Joe Biden crushes Bernie Sanders in Mississippi

Magnolia State’s large African American population gives former vice president his biggest win of the campaign season

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

JACKSON, Mississippi (CFP) — Former Vice President Joe Biden crushed Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders in Mississippi’s Democratic presidential primary Tuesday, extending his string of victories across the South to nine.

Biden won 81 percent of the vote; Sanders came in at just under 15 percent, below the threshold needed to win statewide delegates.

Biden’s 66-point margin was the biggest winning margin so far for Biden in any state, eclipsing his 47-point victory in neighboring Alabama.

The former vice president has now gone nine-for-nine in Southern primaries, with Florida and Georgia on tap next.

Joe Biden addresses supporters after Mississippi win (From Fox News via YouTube)

As in the rest of the South, Biden’s win was due to a strong performance among African American voters, who made up two-thirds of the Democratic electorate in Mississippi.

Exit polls showed that Biden was the choice of 87 percent of black voters, compared to 10 percent for Sanders.

Speaking to his campaign staff in Philadelphia after a public rally in Ohio was canceled over concerns about coronavirus, Biden called the success of his campaign “a comeback for the soul of this nation.”

“Tonight, we are a step closer to restoring decency, dignity and honor to the White House,” Biden said.

He also praised Sanders and his supporters for bringing “energy” to the party and made a plea for unity.

“We share a common goal, and together, we’ll defeat Donald Trump,” Biden said.

Sanders’s defeat is the latest in a long string of Southern setbacks, stretching back to his 2016 run against Hillary Clinton. In 2016, he won in just two Southern states; this time around, he hasn’t won any.

Sanders did not make a public appearance after Tuesday’s results. His campaign also canceled a planned rally in Cleveland.

Florida, on tap next week, is the second biggest prize in the South after Texas, with 219 delegates up for grabs. Recent public polling shows Biden with a wide lead over Sanders in the Sunshine State, where his past comments about Israel and embrace of socialism have gone down less than well with Jewish and immigrant voters, both key voting blocks.

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Mississippi Democrats vote Tuesday in 2020 White House race

The Magnolia State’s demographics favor Joe Biden, although no public polling has been done

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com

JACKSON, Mississippi (CFP) — Mississippi Democrats will weigh in Tuesday on what has now become a two-man race between former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, with the state’s large African American population pointing toward a Biden win.

Mississippi is the only Southern state holding a primary on Tuesday, and it comes a week after Biden swept seven Southern states, including neighboring Arkansas and Tennessee. Other states holding primaries or caucuses Tuesday include Idaho, Michigan, Missouri, North Dakota and Washington.

Polls will be open in Mississippi from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. CT.

Sanders and Biden compete in Mississippi

Biden’s previous wins across the South have been based on rolling up large margins over Sanders among African American voters, and Mississippi has the nation’s largest black voting age population, at 37 percent. In 2016, Hillary Clinton crushed Sanders in the Magnolia State by 66 points.

Although no public polling has been done in Mississippi, the candidates’ schedules may point to how the campaigns feel about the state of the race.

Sanders canceled a planned visit on Friday to campaign in Michigan, while Biden was in Jackson Sunday to speak to the congregation of New Hope Baptist Church, where he was introduced by the state’s lone African American congressman, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, who endorsed the former vice president earlier in the week.

“If I’m the comeback kid, there is only one reason — the African American community all around the country,” Biden said.

Republicans will also hold a primary Tuesday, with President Donald Trump facing only token opposition.

After Mississippi, the next Southern stop on the primary calendar is Florida on March 17, followed by Georgia on March 24.

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Mississippi Votes: Republican Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves wins governorship

Reeves defeats Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood with last minute push from President Donald Trump

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

JACKSON, Mississippi (CFP) — Mississippi Republican Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves has capped a 16-year ascent through the ranks of state politics by capturing the governorship, extending the GOP’s lock on the office for another four years.

Reeves — buoyed by a pre-election visit to Tupelo by President Donald Trump — defeated Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood in the November 5 vote by a margin of 52 percent to 47 percent.

Governor-elect Tate Reeves addresses supporters in Jackson (WJTV via YouTube)

“This is the 12th time I have woke up on a Tuesday morning and put my fate in the hands of the good Lord and the voters of Mississippi,” Reeves told supporters in a victory speech in Jackson. “The Lord always gets it right, and I think the people of Mississippi usually get it right.”

Republicans also swept elections for lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer and agriculture commissioner to continue the GOP’s dominance in the Magnolia State.

Democrats, who last won a governor’s race in 1999, were hoping that Hood — running to the right of national party on contentious social issues such as abortion and gun control — could break through against Reeves, who had to fight his way through a contentious GOP primary and runoff.

Hood, the only Democrat left holding statewide office, had won four races for attorney general but could not make the leap to the state’s top office in a state Trump carried by 28 points in 2016.

In his victory speech, Reeves thanked Trump and Vice President Mike Pence for coming to Mississippi to campaign on his behalf.

“It would have been easy for them to ignore an election for state office in little ol’ Mississippi,” Reeves said. “But they paid atention. They showed up, and they worked hard. And I will never, ever forget their support.”

The win by Reeves, 45, completes an ascent through state politics that began when he was elected as state treasurer in 2003 at age 29. After two terms as treasurer, he was elected twice as lieutenant governor and will now assume the state’s top political job in January.

The incumbent governor, Republican Phil Bryant, was term limited.

Republicans also retained their large majorities in both house of the legislature, although they fell short of getting a two-thirds majority in the House.

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Governorships, legislative control on ballot in 3 Southern states Tuesday

Voters in Kentucky, Mississippi and Virginia will cast ballots in off-year elections for state offices

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

Voters in three Southern states will troop to the polls Tuesday to decide their state’s balance of power and give a first indication of how the current fractious state of American politics might play out in the 2020 election.

In Kentucky and Mississippi, Democratic candidates have a shot at wresting governorships out of GOP hands. In Virginia, Democrats will be trying to complete a takeover of state government by gaining the handful of seats they need to flip both houses of the legislature — which would give them unfettered power to draw political maps after the 2020 census.

Towering over all of these races is President Donald Trump, who has put his personal political prestige on the line by going all in for Republican candidates in Kentucky and Mississippi. Although Trump is not in any trouble in either state in 2020, Democrats will no doubt crow if Trump proves unable to carry his preferred candidates over the line.

In Kentucky, Republican Governor Matt Bevin is seeking re-election after a tumultuous four years in Frankfort that have left him among the nation’s least popular chief executives. He is being challenged by his archenemy, Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, who has repeatedly sued the governor and now hopes to replace him.

Bevin has tried to counter his low approval ratings by wrapping himself in the Trump mantle and painting Beshear as a far-left liberal, particularly on the issue of abortion. Bevin opposes legal abortion, which Beshear supports.

Beshear has countered by painting Bevin as a bully, particularly in his critical comments about public school teachers who have been protesting Republican-backed pension reform plans.

The other race of note in Kentucky is the contest to replace Beshear as attorney general between Republican Daniel Cameron, a protegé of Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Democrat Greg Stumbo, who held the office from 2004 to 2008.

Although Republicans have become dominant in Kentucky politics in recent decades, the last time a Republican won a race for attorney general was 1943 — a streak of 15 consecutive wins that Cameron hopes to snap.

Cameron would also be the first African American to win a statewide race in Kentucky in his own right. (Current Lieutenant Governor Jenean Hampton was elected on a ticket with Bevin in 2015; he bounced her from his re-election ticket earlier this year.)

In Mississippi, two men who have served alongside each other in statewide office for the past 16 years, Republican Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves and Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood, are facing off in the governor’s race.

Democrats, who haven’t won a governor’s race in the Magnolia State since 1999, are hoping that Hood — running to the right of national party on contentious social issues such as abortion and gun control — can break through against Reeves, who had to fight his way through a contentious GOP primary and runoff.

However, a wrinkle in Mississippi law may prove Hood’s undoing — to win, a candidate not only has to win the most votes on Tuesday but must also carry a majority of state House districts. If that threshold isn’t meant, the next governor will be selected by the Republican-controlled legislature, which will almost certainly give the job to Reeves.

The threshold requirement — implemented during the era of Jim Crow to prevent black candidates from winning statewide offices — is currently being challenged in federal court, a suit that will take on new resonance if Hood wins the most votes but doesn’t carry enough districts.

In Virginia, statewide offices aren’t on the ballot, but all 100 House seats and 40 Senate seats are up for grabs.

Currently, Republicans hold a narrow 21-19 in the Senate and a 51-49 majority in the House, which means a net shift of two seats in either house could switch it to Democratic control.

Virginia has been trending Democratic in recent years, and two years ago, Democrats made huge gains to nearly take control of the House while also sweeping statewide races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

Democrats haven’t controlled the House since 1997 or the Senate since 2014. Should they take both chambers Tuesday, it will be the first time since 1993 that Democrats have controlled the legislature and the governorship, which will allow them to redraw legislative and congressional districts after the 2020 census.

Virginia’s congressional delegation currently has seven Democrats and four Republicans, after Democrats flipped three GOP-held seats in 2018. Controlling reapportionment would allow Democrats to protect those gains by drawing more favorable maps, as well as drawing new maps to cement their control of the legislature.

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