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Analysis: Breaks could enable Democrats to win open U.S. Senate seat

While it would take an unlikely confluence of factors breaking their way, Democrats have to feel more confident about their chances of taking one of Mississippi's U.S. Senate seats that are up for election on November 6.

State Sen. Chris McDaniel (R-Ellisville)

The election for U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran's seat — which will be open April 1 when he resigns — will be unaffiliated or nonpartisan, meaning party labels for the candidates won't be on the ballot. With Gov. Phil Bryant unlikely to appoint McDaniel to the open seat, the race will feature at least two GOP contenders including McDaniel and whomever the governor appoints. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters head to a runoff.

Former Democratic congressman and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy has already declared for the race, with September 17 being the deadline for candidates to file paperwork to run.

Here's how they could do it:

Depressed Republican turnout

DOWN: U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby received 968,000 votes in his 2010 re-election campaign. Graph by Steve Wilson

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones beat Republican candidate and former state supreme court chief justice Roy Moore in a 2017 race where many GOP voters either stayed home or cast a ballot for Jones. Moore received only 650,000 votes out of 1.3 million cast, whereas U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, a Republican, received more than 968,000 votes out of 1.4 million cast in a non-presidential election year in 2010.

Historically, turnout in presidential elections is usually 60 percent of eligible voters while 40 percent vote in mid-term or primary elections.

Jones received more than 671,000 votes in Alabama, which was close to level of Democrat votes in the 2016 presidential election (more than 729,000 votes cast for former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton), but not as much as 2012 (then-President Barack Obama received more than 797,000 votes in Alabama).

More than 562,000 Mississippi residents (43.79 percent) voted for then-President Barack Obama in 2012, the best showing by a Democratic presidential candidate in the Magnolia State since President Bill Clinton in 1996 (44 percent). Former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove received more than 560,000 votes in 2008 in his loss to U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker (more than 683,000 votes), which was also a presidential election.

If the Democrats can get 2008 or 2012 levels of participation in the November election (about 560,000 votes), they could have a chance if a large cohort of Republican voters stayed home on November 6.

Moore was dogged about allegations about sexual misconduct with teenage girls after winning the GOP primary over U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Birmingham) and former U.S. Sen. Luther Strange, who was Alabama's attorney general before being appointed to fill the Senate seat of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The allegations likely played a role in suppressing GOP turnout and increasing Democratic participation.

McDaniel switching races to open seat

Now that McDaniel has decided to shift his efforts to running for Mississippi's open U.S. Senate seat, the race promises to be a wild one with two likely GOP contenders and at least one Democrat on the ticket.

McDaniel's switch is a gambit to force Bryant's hand with the appointment of a successor and will also give the state senator more time to raise money since the GOP primary is in June.

If Bryant was to appoint McDaniel to the soon-to-be vacant seat, it would prevent a possible GOP vote split in November. McDaniel's statement reveals his thinking along those lines.

"By announcing early, we are asking Mississippi Republicans to unite around my candidacy and avoid another contentious contest among GOP members that would only improve the Democrats’ chances of winning the open seat. If we unite the party now and consolidate our resources, we can guarantee Donald Trump will have a fighter who will stand with him."

McDaniel likely won't be Bryant's choice for the appointment after the governor said in a statement that "This opportunistic behavior is a sad commentary for a young man who once had great potential."

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker

The candidate Bryant decides to appoint to fill the seat will have to be able to run a successful statewide campaign against McDaniel — who lost to Cochran in 2014 in a runoff by only 6,000 votes — and raise money on a very tight deadline. McDaniel was originally going to run against incumbent Wicker in the June GOP primary.

The right candidate

Despite his resignation from the Clinton administration in 1994 under an ethical cloud due to allegations of corruption, Espy will be one of the strongest candidates the Democrats have fielded in a U.S. Senate race in decades and could even draw some support from establishment Republican voters turned off by a McDaniel candidacy.

Espy crossed party lines and endorsed then-Gov. Haley Barbour for governor in 2007.

The best case scenario for Democrats is for them coalesce around Espy with no other competition in November's race.

The only good news for the GOP is that with McDaniel out of the race for his seat, Wicker will likely coast to an easy November victory over one of six Democratic candidates, including state Rep. David Baria (D-Bay St. Louis), state Rep. Omeria Scott (D-Laurel) and Meridian businessman Howard Sherman, the husband of Mississippi-born actress Sela Ward.

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