George F. Will: Mississippi election tells an American story

File-In this Nov. 11, 2010 photograph, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, speaks at the Global Obesity Summit in Jackson, Miss. Espy was Mississippi's first African-American elected to Congress since Reconstruction, who confirmed Friday, April 6, 2018, that he'll run in a special election to finish the term started by longtime Republican Thad Cochran. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

“To understand the world, you must understand a place like Mississippi.”

— Attributed to William Faulkner

Oxford, Miss. • Time was, there was no other American place quite like it. Fifty-six years ago — a long time in adaptable America’s adjustment of its behavior to its creed — this university town was a few weeks from the U.S. Army’s arrival to assist the matriculation of James Meredith. Today, at a restaurant on Courthouse Square, Democrat Mike Espy is tucking into one of the state’s signature products, farm-raised catfish — as Bill Clinton’s first agriculture secretary, Espy got the Army to serve it to soldiers often — for fuel as he campaigns for a U.S. Senate seat.

Espy’s maternal grandfather, T.J. — Thomas Jefferson — Huddleston, Sr. — was Mississippi’s richest African-American (nursing and funeral homes). In 1986, Huddleston’s grandson became the first African-American congressman from Mississippi since Reconstruction, winning the first of four elections in the nation’s most impoverished district. It was created, in conformity with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, to have a slight African-American majority. Then as now, his axiom was: “You must excite your black voters and not incite your white voters.”

Today he is 64 and has two major opponents. Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith, Mississippi’s former agriculture and commerce commissioner, was appointed to the Senate in April when Thad Cochran resigned for health reasons in his seventh term. Chris McDaniel, also a Republican, is a fire-breather who recently has been informing voters that Robert E. Lee “opposed both slavery and secession.” Espy’s initial fear was that Donald Trump would get McDaniel out of the race — “offer him an ambassadorship” — to make it easier for Hyde-Smith to reach 50 percent on Nov. 6.

All three will then be on the ballot, with no party labels. Polls show Hyde-Smith slightly ahead of Espy, but both under 30 percent and double digits ahead of McDaniel. If neither Espy nor Hyde-Smith wins 50 percent of the vote, there will be a run-off three weeks later. Here is the arithmetic Espy is using to try to pry open the wallets of national Democratic donors:

Assume that he wins 95 percent of the African-American turnout. If that turnout is 33 percent of the total state turnout, as it was in 2016 when Hillary Clinton expended no resources on Mississippi, he needs 28 percent of the remaining vote. If African-American turnout is 35 percent — the African-American portion of the state’s registered electorate — he would need 26 percent of the other votes. If African-American turnout mirrors the African-American portion of the state’s population (37 percent), he needs to receive 24 percent of the remaining vote. If the African-American turnout is 39 percent of the total, a surge in turnout similar to what occurred in the Alabama special Senate election won by Democrat Doug Jones, Espy will need just 22 percent of the remaining vote. He won 12 percent of the white vote in his first congressional election, 40 percent in his third.

Because it has the highest percentage of African-Americans among the 11 formerly Confederate states, Mississippi is demographically more favorable for Democrats than Alabama (26 percent). But Alabama's African-American electorate is more urban (Birmingham, Mobile) than Mississippi's and hence easier to mobilize.

Mississippi voted slightly less emphatically for Trump (57.9 percent) than did the four contiguous states: Alabama (62.1), Tennessee (60.7), Arkansas (60.6) and Louisiana (58.1). And these four were less smitten with Trump than were five states outside the Deep South (Kentucky, West Virginia, Oklahoma, North Dakota and Wyoming).

Espy worked with Bill Clinton in the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, has won the National Rifle Association's "silver rifle" award, and he supported the 2007 re-election of Republican Gov. Haley Barbour after Katrina smashed Mississippi's Gulf Coast in 2005. Espy resigned as agriculture secretary when accused of corruption, but repeatedly refused a special prosecutor's plea deals and was acquitted. His son was one of quarterback Eli Manning's receivers at Ole Miss.

Something in this state’s social soil — a rich loam of complexities and tragedies — has nourished writers: Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, today Jesmyn Ward (“Sing, Unburied, Sing,” “Salvage the Bones”), and of course this town’s William Faulkner, who wrote: “Your illusions are a part of you like your bones and flesh and memory.” The odds are somewhat, but only somewhat, against Espy, so the possibility of victory is not an illusion. He is campaigning within the parameters of normal politics, which makes this a satisfying American as well as local moment.

George F. Will | The Washington Post

George F. Will writes a twice-weekly column on politics and domestic and foreign affairs. He began his column with The Washington Post in 1974, and he received the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1977. georgewill@washpost.com