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Insight: Midterms show why going left in the South leaves Democrats in a hole

Democrats’ short-term problem isn’t rallying their base; it’s getting buried in small towns and rural areas

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

Heading into the midterm elections, there was a great deal of chatter around the thesis that Democrats had found a new way to win statewide races in the South — by nominating liberals who fashion themselves as “progressives” and could rally base and minority voters.

No more mamby pamby moderates, please. Give Southerners liberalism unvarnished, and they would come.

But, alas for Democrats, this strategy proved rather impotent. Beto O’Rourke won’t be a U.S. senator from Texas. Andrew Gillum won’t be governor of Florida, nor Stacey Abrams governor of Georgia.

As Democrats look ahead to 2020, the results in the South in 2018 illustrate why the strategy of tacking to the left, both regionally and nationally, may play right into the hands of the two men they most love to hate, Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

In November, Democrats made major pushes in the five largest Southern states — Florida, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia — targeting federal and statewide races. The only place that strategy worked well was in Virginia, already reliably in the Democratic column.

In Florida, with Gillum and U.S. Senator Bill Nelson leading their ticket, Democrats took just two of the nine targeted House seats and lost both a Senate seat and the governor’s race — in fact, every statewide race except for agriculture commissioner.

In Texas, with O’Rourke leading the way by not beating Ted Cruz, Democrats took just two of eight targeted House seats, and all eight GOP incumbents running for re-election statewide won – Governor Greg Abbott by more than 1 million votes.

In Georgia, Abrams’s candidacy helped the suburban doughnut around Atlanta to the Democratic column, costing Republicans one House seat. But she fell short against an opponent, Brian Kemp, who lacked her polish or political skills.

In North Carolina, none of the House seats targeted by Democrats flipped, though they did manage to reduce the GOP’s previously veto-proof majority in the legislature.

The results for Democrats were even more grim in the smaller Southern states. In Arkansas, where as recently as 2010 Democrats held the governorship and every statehouse post, they didn’t come within 20 points in any statewide race and lost every federal race for the third election in a row.

So why is this important in 2020? Because if Democrats can’t win statewide races in the South, they face daunting math in both the Electoral College and the Senate. And the near total failure of out-and-out “progressive” candidates to win in 2018 raises serious questions about the wisdom of nominating them two years from now.

If Trump sweeps the South outside of Virginia, he’s at 167 electoral votes. Add to that the 36 votes of the reliably Republican states in the West and Great Plains, and he’s at 203. And in every presidential election but one since World War II, the same candidate that has carried Florida also carried Ohio, which puts him at 221.

Thus, Trump would need just 49 electoral votes from the remaining states; in 2016, he got 85. To deny him the presidency, a Democrat would have to take away Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, with no room for error.

Now consider how much easier it would be for a Democrat to beat Trump if he or she could pick off some states in the South, as both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did on their way to the White House.

And consider how unlikely that will be if the Democratic ticket is headed by Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders or Kamala Harris or Cory Booker.

The Senate math is even more daunting. Of the 22 Republican-held seats up in 2020, 12 are in the South and six in those reliably Republican areas in the West. Democrats must also defend a seat in Alabama.

Democrats need to flip four seats to get to a majority. So if they are shut out in the South, including Alabama, the best they can hope for is a 50-50 tie, even if they run the table in the four remaining GOP-held states — Arizona, Iowa, Colorado and Maine.

Of course, proponents of the with-progressives-we-can-win-strategy will point to the fact that O’Rourke, Gillum and Abrams came closer to victory than Democrats have in recent elections — and also closer than Phil Bredesen, the Democratic moderate in Tennessee’s Senate race.

That may be true, but it also begs this question: Given the political winds blowing in Democrats’ favor in 2018, might they have won those close races had they nominated candidates more willing to trim their progressive sails?

Long-term demographic trends, particularly more urban and minority voters and a shift toward Democrats in the suburbs of major cities, do threaten Republican hegemony in the South. But 2020 is not the long term.

The biggest short-term problem for Democrats in the South is that they are getting buried in small towns and rural areas outside of major cities with majority white populations, digging a hole so deep that there are not enough urban, suburban and minority voters to get them out of it.

Kemp took at least 70 percent of the vote in half of Georgia’s counties. In the 350 miles of Florida from Pensacola to Jacksonville, Gillum won just two counties. And if you drew a line across Texas from El Paso to Austin to Houston, O’Rourke’s only victories north of that line were in Dallas and Fort Worth.

If Democrats can’t fix their problem with rural voters, they are unlikely to win statewide in the South in 2020 — and 2018 shows that throwing self-styled progressives against the Republicans’ big red wall is certainly not the solution.

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Decision ’18: U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith wins special election runoff in Mississippi

Hyde-Smith, appointed to the seat in April, defeats Democrat Mike Espy

JACKSON, Mississippi (CFP) — After a racially charged three-week runoff campaign, Republican U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith has held on to her seat in Mississippi, defeating Democrat Mike Espy in the nation’s last remaining Senate contest.

U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith

With Hyde-Smith’s win, Republicans will hold 53 seats in the next Senate, to 45 for Democrats and two independents who caucus with the Democrats.

Hyde-Smith took 54 percent in the November 27 vote to 46 percent for Espy, a former congressman who was trying to make a return to politics after a 20-year absence. She is the first woman ever elected to the Senate from the Magnolia State.

“The reason we won is because Mississippians know me and they know my heart,” Hyde-Smith told supporters in Jackson. “This victory, it’s about our conservative values.”

In his concession speech at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, Espy told supports that his showing — the best by a Democrat in a Senate race in the state in 30 years — was “the beginning, not the end” of efforts to change Mississippi’s politics.

“When this many people show up, when this many people stand up, when this many people speak up, it is not a loss. It is a moment,” he said.

Hyde-Smith and Espy were facing in a special election to fill the remaining two years of the term of Republican Thad Cochran, the Mississippi icon who resigned in April due to ill health. She was appointed by Governor Phil Bryant to serve in the Senate temporarily until voters picked a permanent replacement in the special election.

During both the primary and special election, Hyde-Smith enjoyed the support of President Donald Trump, who tweeted on her behalf and made two appearances in the state on the day before the runoff vote.

Hyde-Smith, 59, from Brookhaven, was Mississippi’s agriculture commissioner until being appointed to the Senate. She was originally elected to the state Senate in 2000 as a Democrat but switched parties in 2010.

Espy, 64, from Jackson, served three terms in the U.S. House before being picked by President Bill Clinton as agriculture secretary in 1993.

During the first round of voting November 6, Hyde-Smith and Espy tied at 41 percent, with another Republican in the race, State Senator Chris McDaniel, coming in third.

Given the state’s overwhelming Republican tilt, Hyde-Smith was seen as a prohibitive favorite in the runoff. Indeed, McDaniel, who nearly beat Cochran in 2014, was seen as the biggest hurdle to her continued tenure in the Senate. However, she became ensnared in a series of controversies during the runoff campaign that gave Democrats hope for an upset.

Five days after the first election, a video surfaced in which Hyde-Smith is heard telling a supporter that if he invited her to a public hanging, she would be in the front row. She insisted the remark was a joke, but her critics charged it was a racially insensitive remark to make in a state with a history of lynchings of African-Americans.

During their only campaign debate, Hyde-Smith apologized “to anyone who was offended by my comments,” insisting there was “no ill will” and that her record as senator and agriculture commissioner shows she harbors no racial animus.

“This comment was twisted, and it was turned into a weapon to be used against me — a political weapon used for nothing but personal, political gain by my opponent,” she said.

Another video surfaced November 15 in which Hyde-Smith says it would be a “great idea” to make it more difficult for liberals to vote, which her campaign insisted was a joke made to supporters and not advocacy of voter suppression.

Then a week before the runoff, news organizations began reporting on a photo posted in 2014 on Hyde-Smith’s Facebook account, where she is seen donning a Confederate cap and carrying a rifle while visiting Jefferson Davis’s home in Biloxi.

The Jackson Free Press also reported that Hyde-Smith had attended a high school in the 1970s originally founded to allow white parents to avoid sending their children to segregated schools.

Hyde-Smith’s campaign accused news organizations of practicing “gotcha” journalism in an attempt to paint her as a racist. But the controversies put race front and center in the campaign, in the state with the largest African-American population in the country.

The election results illustrated those racial divisions. Espy easily carried Jackson and the majority African-American counties in the Mississippi Delta; Hyde-Smith won lopsided victories in majority white areas — up to 80 percent in some counties in the northeastern and southeastern corners of the state.

With Hyde-Smith’s victory, Republicans will hold 24 out of the 28 Senate seats in the South, to just four Democrats — Mark Warner and Tim Kaine in Virginia, Joe Manchin in West Virginia, and Doug Jones in Alabama.

Only one Senate seat changed hands in 2018 — in Florida, where Republican Governor Rick Scott defeated the Democratic incumbent, Bill Nelson.

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RACE CALLED: U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith re-elected in Mississippi; REP HOLD

Decision 18: Final U.S. Senate race will be decided in Mississippi Tuesday

Republican U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith tries to withstand controversies dogging her during the runoff with Democrat Mike Espy

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com

JACKSON, Mississippi (CFP) — In the three weeks since the first round of voting in Mississippi’s special U.S. Senate election, Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith has faced a barrage of negative headlines in the national media and apologized for making a joke about attending a public hanging.

Cindy Hyde-Smith in 2014 Facebook photo at Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis’s home

And in a world where nothing on the internet ever goes away, a Facebook photo surfaced of Hyde-Smith — during a visit to the home of Jefferson Davis — wearing a Confederate cap, holding a rifle and calling the tableau “Mississippi history at its best.”

All of this was too much for Wal-Mart, which asked for its campaign contribution back.

But the question to be answered in Tuesday’s runoff is, will any of that be enough to allow her Democratic African-American opponent, Mike Espy, to defeat her in a bright red state where a Democrat hasn’t won a Senate race in 36 years?

Or to overcome very visible support from President Donald Trump, who is making visits to Tupelo and Biloxi on election eve to rally the base for Hyde-Smith?

Hyde-Smith is facing Espy in a special election to fill the remaining two years of the term of Republican Thad Cochran, the Mississippi icon who resigned in April due to ill health. She was appointed by Governor Phil Bryant to serve in the Senate temporarily until voters pick a permanent replacement in the special election.

Hyde-Smith, 59, from Brookhaven, was Mississippi’s agriculture commissioner until being appointed to the Senate. She was originally elected to the state Senate in 2000 as a Democrat but switched parties in 2010.

Former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy

Espy, 64, from Jackson, served three terms in the U.S. House before being picked by President Bill Clinton as agriculture secretary in 1993. He resigned in 1994 amid allegations that he had received improper gifts. He was later acquitted of federal corruption charges.

During the first round of voting November 6, Hyde-Smith and Espy tied at 41 percent, with another Republican in the race, State Senator Chris McDaniel, coming in third.

Given the overwhelming Republican tilt of the Magnolia State, Hyde-Smith was seen as a prohibitive favorite in the runoff. Indeed, McDaniel, who nearly beat Cochran in 2014, was seen as the biggest hurdle to her continued tenure in the Senate.

However, a series of controversies that have dogged her since the first round of voting have given Democrats hope that they might replicate the success they had in Alabama in 2017, when Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore amid allegations of sexual impropriety.

First, five days after the election, a video surfaced in which Hyde-Smith is heard telling a supporter that if he invited her to a public hanging, she would be in the front row. She insisted the remark was a joke, but her critics charged it was a racially insensitive remark to make in a state with a history of lynchings of African-Americans.

During their only campaign debate, Hyde-Smith apologized “to anyone who was offended by my comments,” insisting there was “no ill will” and that her record as senator and agriculture commissioner shows she harbors no racial animus.

“This comment was twisted, and it was turned into a weapon to be used against me — a political weapon used for nothing but personal, political gain by my opponent,” she said.

Another video surfaced November 15 in which Hyde-Smith says it would be a “great idea” to make it more difficult for liberals to vote, which her campaign insisted was a joke made to supporters and not advocacy of voter suppression.

Then a week before the runoff, news organizations began reporting a photo posted in 2014 on Hyde-Smith’s Facebook account, where she is donning a Confederate cap and carrying a rifle at Davis’s home in Biloxi.

The caption read: “I enjoyed my tour of Beauvoir. The Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library located in Biloxi. This is a must see. Currently on display are artifacts connected to the daily life of the Confederate Soldier including weapons. Mississippi history at its best!”

Her campaign did not offer any comment in the photo. But a spokeswoman pushed back hard when the Jackson Free Press reported that Hyde-Smith had attended a high school in the 1970s originally founded to allow white parents to avoid sending their children to segregated schools. The story included photos of a teenage Hyde-Smith posing with her cheerleading pom-poms.

“In their latest attempt to help Mike Espy, the gotcha liberal media has taken leave of their senses,” said spokeswoman Melissa Scallan. “They have stooped to a new low, attacking her entire family and trying to destroy her personally instead of focusing on the clear differences on the issues between Cindy Hyde-Smith and her far-left opponent.”

What won’t be clear until Tuesday is how much any of these controversies will affect the outcome of this race. Many white Mississippians of Hyde-Smith’s generation attended so-called “segregation academies” when they were young. And wearing a Confederate cap has a different connotation in a place where the state flag still contains the Confederate battle emblem than it does in media and political circles in Washington or New York.

Also, none of the controversies dogging Hyde-Smith comes anywhere close to the situation in Alabama, where Moore was accused of sexual misconduct with underage girls, which he denied.

Mississippi has the largest percentage of African-American residents of any state, 37 percent. So the result of the runoff will likely hinge on the turnout among African-American voters, who are expected to go Democratic in large numbers.

If African-Americans make up 30 percent of the electorate Tuesday, as they did in the first round of voting, Espy would need about a third of the white vote to get to a majority. If they make up 35 percent, he would need about a quarter of the white vote.

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Decision ’18: Democrat Bill Nelson concedes defeat in Florida U.S. Senate race

Republican Governor Rick Scott will move from Tallahassee to Washington after winning recount

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com

TALLAHASSEE (CFP) — After protests, a flurry of lawsuits and two recounts, Democratic U.S. Senator Bill Nelson has conceded defeat to Republican Governor Rick Scott, possibly bringing the curtain down on a political career that spanned more than four decades and included a trip into space.

Scott’s victory means there will be just four Democrats among the 28 senators representing Southern states, down one from the last Congress. And Florida will have two Republican senators for the first time since Reconstruction in 1875.

In a video released by his campaign, Nelson said that while he lost the Senate race, “I by no means feel defeated, and that’s because I’ve had the great privilege of serving the people of Florida and our country for most of my life.”

“It’s been a rewarding journey as well as a very humbling experience,” he said.

He also made a plea for more civility to combat “a gathering darkness” in American political life.

“We have to move beyond a politics that aims not just to defeat but to destroy, where truth is treated as disposable,” he said.

Scott, who has now won three consecutive statewide elections by thin margins, issued a statement thanking Nelson “for his years of public service.”

Nelson’s concession came after a machine recount of ballots in all 67 counties and a hand recount of ballots with under-votes or over-votes in the Senate race did not overturn Scott’s margin of victory.

Scott defeated Nelson by just 10,033 votes, out of nearly 8.2 million cast.

Scott had led on election night, but late reports of ballots from Democratic-leaning Broward and Palm Beach counties began narrowing the lead. Both Scott and President Donald Trump suggested that fraud was occurring in both counties, although evidence seemed to point to mismanagement rather than deliberate malfeasance.

In the following days, both campaigns went to court, and protests erupted outside elections offices in Broward — scenes reminiscent of the recount battle that erupted in the Sunshine State after the 2000 presidential election.

Nelson’s last hope was turning up uncounted ballots in Broward, where 25,000 fewer people voted in the Senate election than in the race for governor. But the hand recount confirmed that those ballots were indeed under-votes, which could have been caused by a flawed ballot design.

In Broward, the Senate race was listed at the bottom of a column underneath voting instructions, which could have resulted in some voters not seeing it.

Florida Governor Rick Scott

Scott, 65, went into politics after building a fortune in the health care industry. Financial disclosure reports put his net worth at around $250 million.

He won the governorship in 2010 with a margin of just 1.2 percent and won re-election in 2014 in an even closer race, 1 percent. His margin over Nelson in the Senate race was narrower still, 0.12 percent.

Scott’s win means Republicans will have at least 52 seats in the next Senate to 47 for Democrats, a net pickup of two seats. One seat remains to be decided in Mississippi, where Republicans are favored.

U.S. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida

Nelson, 76, won his first election, to the Florida House, in 1972. He served 12 years in the U.S. House and six years as Florida’s insurance commissioner before winning election to the Senate in 2000.

In 1986, while a sitting member of the House, Nelson went into space as a payload specialist on the space shuttle Columbia. His district included the Kennedy Space Center.

Just 10 days after his return, a different space shuttle, Challenger, exploded during launch, which ended NASA’s program of sending civilians into space.

With Nelson’s defeat, the only Democrats representing Southern states will be Mark Warner and Tim Kaine in Virginia, Joe Manchin in West Virginia, and Doug Jones in Alabama.

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Decision ’18: Time and options running out for Bill Nelson and Andrew Gillum in Florida

After machine recounts, Republicans Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis maintain leads in races for U.S. Senate, governor

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

TALLAHASSEE (CFP) — After a machine recount of ballots in all 67 Florida counties, Republican candidates Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis maintained leads in races for U.S. Senate and governor, with time and options running out for their Democratic rivals, Bill Nelson and Andrew Gillum.

In the Senate race, vote totals updated after the conclusion of the machine recount showed Scott with a lead of 12,600 votes over Nelson — a small enough margin that a hand recount of overvotes and undervotes in the race was ordered, with a Sunday deadline.

Ron DeSantis

Andrew Gillum

In the governor’s race, DeSantis’s lead over Gillum was 33,700, not enough to trigger a hand recount. That would seem to leave Gillum with no path to victory before final results are certified on Tuesday, unless he can successfully contest the election’s outcome in court.

However, because totals from three counties that missed a Thursday deadline for the recount — Broward, Palm Beach and Hillsborough — were not included in the revised totals, Gillum has refused to concede, saying “there are tens of thousands of votes that have yet to be counted.”

“We plan to do all we can to ensure that every voice is heard in this process,” he said in a statement. “Voters need to know that their decision to participate in this election, and every election, matters. It is not over until every legally cast vote is counted.”

But DeSantis, who has declared victory, made it clear he is now planning for his transition into the governor’s chair.

“Campaigns of ideas must give way to governing and bringing people together to secure Florida’s future,” he said in a statement. “With the campaign now over, that’s where all of my focus will be.”

Bill Nelson

Rick Scott

In the Senate race, the rival campaigns have filed a flurry of lawsuits since election night, as Scott’s lead over Nelson has steadily decreased.

Most of the contention has centered around Broward County, a Democratic bastion where late tabulation of vote totals has prompted Republican leaders, including Scott and President Donald Trump, to allege fraud.

In Broward, 25,000 fewer votes were cast in the Senate race than in the race for governor, an anomaly that Nelson’s camp hopes might turn the race around.

If those undervotes were the result of a tabulation error, then the hand recount of ballots where no vote for Senate was cast could turn up additional Nelson votes. However, if those results are the result of a flawed ballot design, the race would come to an end.

In Broward, the Senate race was tucked at the bottom of a long column on the ballot, under lengthy voting instructions, where some voters might not have seen it.

Once the recounts are over, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, a Scott appointee, will certify the votes. At that point, both Scott and Gillum have the option of going to court to contest the election, although that would require evidence of irregularities serious enough to change the outcome.

Scott’s victory in the Senate race would be a pickup for Republicans and mark the first time the GOP has held both of the state’s Senate seats in more than 100 years. DeSantis would succeed Scott in the governor’s chair.

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Decision ’18: Machine recounts ordered in Florida U.S. Senate and governor’s races

Elections officials will send ballots through machines a second time and retabulate before Thursday

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

TALLAHASSEE (CFP) — Elections officials in all of Florida’s 67 counties will recount ballots in three razor-close statewide races, amid lawsuits, claims of fraud and partisan protests reminiscent of the 2000 presidential recount battle in the Sunshine State.

On Saturday, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner ordered recounts in the races for U.S. Senate, governor and agriculture commissioner, after unofficial results showed all three races within the 0.5 percent margin that triggers a recount under state law.

The deadline for completing the recount is Thursday.

In the Senate race, Republican Governor Rick Scott led Democratic U.S. Senator Bill Nelson by just 13,200 votes, out of nearly 8.2 million votes cast, a margin of 0.16 percent.

In the governor’s race, Republican former U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis led Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum by 33,700 votes, a margin of 0.4 percent.

The third race headed for a recount is the contest for state agriculture commissioner, where Democrat Nikki Fried holds just a 5,300-vote lead over Republican Matt Caldwell.

Scott, DeSantis and Caldwell all led on election night but have seen their margins slip away as additional votes were reported in Broward and Palm Beach counties, both Democratic strongholds.

The slow vote-reporting process in those counties have prompted Republican officials to raise the specter of fraud, although claims of fraud have not yet been substantiated.

Scott sued election supervisors in both counties, saying he would “not sit idly by while unethical liberals try to steal this election.” Nelson in turn sued Detzner over the process being used to verify signatures on mail-in and provisional ballots.

President Donald Trump has also been stirring the pot, taking time during a visit to France to tweet, “Trying to STEAL two big elections in Florida! We are watching closely!”

Meanwhile, Gillum, who conceded to DeSantis on election night, took it back in a Saturday tweet: “I am replacing my earlier concession with an unapologetic and uncompromised call to count every vote.”

After the recounts were ordered, protestors from both camps gathered outside the office of Broward County Supervisor of Election Brenda Snipes, whose handling of the election has come in for criticism. Pro-Republican protestors offered chants of “Lock Her Up,” an apparent reference to Snipes.

Broward begins its recount of more than 700,000 ballots on Sunday morning.

After Detzner ordered the recount, Scott’s campaign called on Nelson “to accept reality and spare the state of the Florida the time, expense and discord of a recount.” State law allows Nelson to call off the recount.

But Nelson was having none of it: “We believe when every legal ballot is counted we’ll win this election,” he said in a statement.

In Florida, voters mark ballots with a pen, which are then read by optical scanning equipment. During the recount, all of the ballots cast in the election will be run through tabulating machines a second time, except for ballots where voters did not vote in a race or voted for more than one candidate.

If any of the three races is within 0.25 percent after the machine recount, the overvotes and undervotes will be examined by hand to determine voter intent.

The recounts in this year’s statewide races would be the first triggered since Florida’s election laws were rewritten after the 2000 presidential election, in which Republican George W. Bush finished with a 500-vote lead over Democrat Al Gore.

Court battles and chaos ensued, as elections officials struggled to recount votes cast with punch cards in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties. After an lengthy court fight that reached both the U.S. and Florida supreme courts, Bush was declared the winner.

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