Since the election of Doug Jones to the US Senate in the Special Election in Alabama last year, pundits and political journalists have begun to focus on Democratic candidates in other red states, especially Beto O'Rourke in Texas, and Phil Bredesen in Tennessee.  This increase in focus is caused by many factors, most notably the momentum and lead in the general ballot Democrats have going into this cycle, but it also has a lot to do with the strength of the candidates Democrats are recruiting.  Phil Bredesen is a recent two-term governor of his state, who won the vote in every county during his re-election campaign.  Beto O'Rourke may not have been a former governor, but the representative has proved to be an extremely effective campaigner against a not-so-popular opponent, and we've all seen where that can lead.

These two seats are often deemed crucial to Democrats plan to take back the Senate, as they are defending 26 of the 35 senate seats up for election in 2018 and need to seize on every available opportunity.  Both of the seats are indeed very important; without winning either of these states, Democrats would likely have to hold all of their current seats, in states Trump won including Missouri, West Virginia, Montana, North Dakota (More on that later...), Florida, Ohio, and Indiana, and make pickups in Nevada and Arizona.  This isn't necessarily impossible but certainly makes for a challenging path.  With all this dependency coming down to these two races in Texas and Tennessee it's a little crazy to think that a very similar race in Missippii hasn't gained nearly as much attention.  Even though Mississippi is a very red state, there a lot of factors that make it a prime target for Democrats to win back a seat.

First, we have the Republican incumbent, Cindy Hyde-Smith, who was nominated to the position when Thad Cochran resigned from the Senate earlier this year.  The incumbency advantage in this scenario is ultimately nonexistent; research has shown that appointed senators don't share the same advantage as those elected.  Hyde-Smith has drawn controversy among Republicans for only switching her party affiliation in 2010 from Democrat, and this has also caused a challenger from the right, Chris McDaniel.  McDaniel made a name for himself in the right wing of the party when he challenged longtime Senator Thad Cochran in his 2014 re-election bid.  He has drawn controversy for some pretty extreme statements, and the Democrat looks to stand a very good chance should McDaniel be the nominee.  So far, in polls between the three (Mississippi will hold a Jungle Primary), McDaniel consistently comes in last, however, the polls are another issue in this race that needs addressing.

Finally, we have the Democratic challenger, Mike Espy.  Espy was elected to Congress in 1986 and served until becoming Secretary of Agriculture under Bill Clinton.  Epsy isn't without baggage; he left his post as Secretary after he was charged (but not convicted) with illegal acceptance of gifts.  Despite that, he has been successful in using his agriculture background in attracting voters and turning the race somewhat competitive.  Cook Political Report now rates the race as just "Lean Republican", yet no one talks about this race, and it may be even closer than Cook suggests.  Let's take a look at the polls

Poller Dates Espy Hyde-Smith McDaniel Undecided
Marist College October 13–18, 2018 29% 38% 15% 15%
SurveyMonkey September 9–24, 2018 25% 24% 19% 27%
NRC (Conservative Pollster) August 22–23 and 27–30, 2018 28% 27% 18% 27%
The Mellman Group (Espy Pollster) August 1–7, 2018 27% 29% 17% -

As we look at these polls a few things are obvious.  First, this is a very underpolled race, with only four polls since the beginning of August.  None of them are from well-rated pollsters either.  This has to do with the infrastructure of the state; Mississippi isn't used to having close elections, so they don't have a system to poll the state.  In the four we have two partisan pollsters, a SurveyMonkey online poll (which are notedly less reliable), and finally a decent Marist College poll, in collaboration with NBC.  All of these polls are very different in their results, fluctuating from a 9 point Hyde-Smith lead to a 1 point Espy lead.  There is also a very high percentage of undecided voters, which tend to lean towards state fundamentals as we approach the election.  However, in all of these polls, what we can learn is none of the candidates are close to getting 50% of the vote, which will lead to a runoff.  Head-to-head polling is just as unclear as the three-way polling; the results ranged from a 14-point Hyde-Smith victory to a 3-point Espy victory.  One thing is clear though: Espy would fare better in a matchup versus McDaniel.  Although it appears unlikely at the moment, some factors could cause this to happen (a late Trump endorsement, etc...).  Espy has led in every head-to-head matchup versus him.

Mike Espy

Even with all this uncertainty, the national news has paid very little attention to the race and rating systems have mostly taken the state for granted.  This has probably benefited Espy.  Doug Jones tried to stay away from the national presence and make it a state race, fearing a Jon Ossoff situation.  Espy has a lot going for him, being a strong candidate with a strong background, focusing on the race in the state, and is very close in every poll.  Without the support of national Democrats, Espy is at a big fundraising disadvantage, but it doesn't seem to matter.  Although not the best measurement of candidates performance, Espy is getting major Mississippi endorsements, and drawing big gatherings across the state.  FiveThirtyEight currently puts his chances at about 12%, about 1 in 8, but his real chances are much more.  Several factors impact this, like the small-state factor.  Jon Tester, although a Democrat in an increasingly Republican state, looks almost to be a shoe-in this November, as his style of politics matches the state.  Joe Manchin does this same thing in West Virginia, which Trump by one of the biggest margins across America.  Manchin now leads by double digits.  Espy appears to be doing this same thing in Mississippi.  Although he doesn't have an incumbency advantage, he has a long history in the state and because of the lack of national attention, he can focus on state issues.  Political analysts fail to match this with a higher rate of success in Mississippi, as the lack of polls doesn't provide a leading indicator.  Even without polls, the factors of this election put in an area with a lot of uncertainty.  This provides Espy with a great chance at winning the seat, probably slightly above 1/3.  If by chance McDaniel wins the seat, I think we will see Espy become the frontrunner in the race, if he can avoid the spotlight from being the last undecided senate race.  I think we can say with a pretty strong certainty that this race isn't ending Tuesday; it will most likely go to a run-off.  Once that happens, we'll provide other look at this race with hopefully some more indicators.

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