Incumbent Lt. Governor Delbert Hosemann is the odds-on favorite to retain his seat against conservative challenger Chris McDaniel, as campaigns trade final blows heading into next Tuesday’s Republican Primary. Turnout could throw a wrench into things.
Tuesday, August 8th, is Primary Day. Barring a runoff scenario, by nightfall, it will all be over but the crying. With few hotly contested races on the ballot, the cage fight between incumbent Delbert Hosemann and State Senator Chris McDaniel for Lt. Governor is the biggest draw.
At a standing room only political event in Madison on Wednesday, McDaniel made his case for the seat. Hosemann did not attend, instead sending first-term State Senator Daniel Sparks to represent him.
Sparks has been a regular proxy for Hosemann throughout the campaign, particularly when it involves sharing a stage with McDaniel.
One person not happy with the substitution was Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler. Butler and other Madison County residents have been concerned by rumors of a plan to split the current Madison-Rankin judicial district and place Madison County in a district with either Holmes or Yazoo County.
Hosemann has previously denied any intent to do so, saying “I am opposed to dividing the current circuit court district composed of Rankin and Madison Counties and so are other Republican senators who represent these areas.”
That denial did not satiate Mayor Butler, who wanted to hear it from the horse’s mouth.
“I wanted a commitment from the candidates that they would shepherd this, that they would make a commitment to the citizens of Madison, that this is not going to happen,” she said. “I think that there were a lot of people here that were interested in that.”
Butler described Hosemann not being there as a “slap in the face.”
McDaniel argued at the event that much of the uncertainty about what the candidates stand for could be solved if Hosemann would debate him. Hosemann has rebuffed McDaniel’s efforts to force a debate, a move not uncommon for an incumbent facing a challenger.
In recent weeks, the acrimony between the two camps has been ratcheted up to 11 on a 10-point scale, with McDaniel levying charges against Hosemann that include an accusation that he served as the vice president of an abortion clinic.
Hosemann has vehemently denied that claim, calling McDaniel a “pathological liar,” “coward,” and “despicable,” and pointing to an endorsement from National Right to Life.
We previouslyo examined the basis of McDaniel’s claim and Hosemann’s defense, but the short version is that Hosemann was listed with the Secretary of State as both a director and the vice president of a full-service OBGYN clinic, South Jackson Woman’s Clinic. The clinic, at some point, began offering abortions.
Hosemann contends that the paperwork filed was mistaken, that he only every provided legal services to the clinic, and that those services occurred before the clinic made the decision to start offering abortions.
In response to television and radio ads being run by a pro-McDaniel Super PAC, “Invest in Mississippi PAC,” which repeat the abortion clinic claims, Hosemann’s campaign sought to have them taken down for containing defamatory content.
In a memorandum obtained by Magnolia Tribune, attorney Anne Godwin Crump advised the Mississippi Association of Broadcasters not to remove the ads, arguing “[b]ased upon my review of the records attached to each party’s letters and the records of the Mississippi Secretary of State, however, I see no compelling evidence that the advertisement’s claims are false.”
It should be noted that this is not the functional equivalent of a finding that they are true.
McDaniel’s camp is not the only one swinging. Hosemann has focused on McDaniel’s campaign finances, as irregularities have mounted since the launch of the campaign. These irregularities include the double counting of contributions across multiple reporting periods and questions about the movement of funds between PACs and the campaign.
Hosemann has filed complaints with both the Attorney General and the Mississippi Ethics Commission, which to date, have taken no public action on the claims. In recent days, Hosemann’s campaign has focused on allegations that McDaniel does not live at his stated address.
“My opponent has been referred for criminal prosecution for his repeated illegal campaign finance reports,” Hosemann said. “Now, it appears doubtful that he lived in his district, which means he voted illegally. Voting is the cornerstone of our Constitution. I call upon the attorney general and the district attorney of Jones County to investigate this alleged illegal activity and determine before Aug. 8 whether the voters of Mississippi have been misled and its election laws violated.”
McDaniel has responded his house has a black mold problem that is being mitigated, but that it continues to be the family’s legal residence.
Hosemann’s also argued, including through Senate surrogates like Sparks and fellow first-term Senator Jeremy England, that McDaniel is ineffective as a Senator, with few legislative wins in his quiver, and frequently is not present for Senate business.
Both sides have made the obligatory nods to Donald Trump, arguing that they are on team Trump and their opponent is not. Hosemann has highlighted comments from McDaniel during the 2016 Republican Primary that questioned Trump’s conservatism.
McDaniel has pointed to the fact that Hosemann never “endorsed” Trump and that he told Trump’s voter fraud commission to “go jump in the Gulf of Mexico.” It should be noted that this quote occurred in the context of declining to turn over the personal information of Mississippi voters to the federal government.
All of this to say that the campaign has devolved into a royal mess.
Handicapping the Race
Conventional wisdom is that Hosemann will win this race. He is an incumbent. Historically, he is popular. He has had a sizable money advantage throughout the campaign, which has allowed him to buy far more television and radio advertising than McDaniel for much longer periods of time.
McDaniel also comes with the baggage of two prior contentious races for U.S. Senate, first in 2014 against Mississippi political icon Thad Cochran, and then in 2018 against Phil Bryant-appointed and Trump-endorsed Cindy Hyde-Smith. He came close against Cochran, forcing a runoff amid a series of high profile controversies. In an open race that included both Senator Hyde-Smith and Democrat challenger Mike Espy in 2018, he fared less well, finishing third.
Polling of the race has been limited and all over the map. Mississippi Today, in a poll that assumed that one-third of Republican Primary voters would be something other than Republican, had Hosemann up 15-points in early June. A leaked poll from the National Association of Realtors, taken just a week prior to the Mississippi Today poll, had McDaniel up by 5-points.
Since then, Hosemann has dramatically outspent McDaniel. In fact, for the better part of a month and a half, Hosemann had the airwaves effectively to himself. One would assume that this has generated a Hosemann lead, with McDaniel only recently going on air in any sustained way.
Sources close to the Hosemann campaign have expressed confidence that he is up by a sizable margin, but that raises questions on why the late focus on things as arguably trivial to voters as whether McDaniel lives in his own house. Unless the accusation is that he lives out of state, McDaniel is running for a statewide office and not a district seat that might otherwise be contingent on residency.
The key will be turnout. High turnout and Hosemann will almost certainly win the race. Low turnout, and the race could get interesting.
In 2015, there were 278,427 votes in the Republican Primary. In 2019, that number exploded to 383,080. The expansion was likely caused by multiple factors, including a shift in party affiliation for locally elected offices and a very high profile gubernatorial race that saw Gov. Tate Reeves fend off significant challenge from former Supreme Court Justice Bill Waller and populist firebrand Robert Foster.
In the 2014 and 2018 U.S. Senate races, McDaniel pulled 158,000 and 154,000 votes, respectively. Assuming he maintains his base, a turnout of 320,000 or under, and he has a chance. A turnout of more in line with 2019 and the math gets difficult.
There are fewer high profile, competitive races on the ballot this year. Absentee ballot requests could be signaling lower turnout than 2019. In 2015, there were 37,704 absentee ballots requested for the primaries, or roughly 6.5 percent of the final vote (577,795). In 2019, there were 42,096 ballots requested, or roughly 6.1 percent of the final vote (685,470).
Through Monday, there had been 26,946 absentee ballots requested. That number will have gone up this week, but by how much? And if history is an indicator of what absentee requests portend for total vote, it could be suggesting a lower turnout than in 2019.
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