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Debates unlikely in special US Senate race in Mississippi

October 6, 2018
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In this Friday, Sept. 7, 2018 photo, appointed Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., looks at a group of farmers and ranchers during a Greenwood, Miss., campaign stop. Hyde-Smith is running in a special election in November to fill the unexpired term of U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who retired in April. She faces fellow Republican, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who almost unseated Cochran four years ago, Mike Espy, a Democrat and President Bill Clinton's first agriculture secretary, and Tobey Bernard Bartee, a former military intelligence officer who is also a Democrat. Party labels do not appear on the ballot. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi voters are unlikely to see their state’s appointed U.S. senator in a face-to-face debate with her three challengers before next month’s special election to fill the end of a six-year term.

The only two scheduled campaign debates are falling apart because Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith said she would not participate if she has to be at work in Washington and Democratic challenger Mike Espy said he would not debate without her there. That left Republican Chris McDaniel and Democrat Tobey Bernard Bartee.

Sponsors of both debates backed out, saying they wanted to give people a chance to compare all the candidates.

Early this week, Millsaps College and Mississippi Public Broadcasting canceled a debate that had been scheduled for Thursday.

On Friday, Clarion Ledger editor Sam Hall announced cancellation of the Oct. 23 debate the newspaper was sponsoring with WLBT-TV, the League of Woman Voters and the Mississippi Bar Association. Asked whether the event will happen if Hyde-Smith and Espy agree to participate, Hall said: “Anything’s possible.”

Hyde-Smith voted Friday to advance Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination to the full Senate, and she continued saying she will vote to confirm him. She spoke for nearly an hour Friday evening in a telephone town hall meeting arranged by her campaign, and she denounced McDaniel’s frequent claim that she voted for Hillary Clinton in a 2008 Democratic presidential primary.

“I could swear to you on a stack of Bibles that would go through the roof of the building we are standing in — I have never and would never vote for Hillary Clinton,” Hyde-Smith said.

She has said in previous interviews, including one with The Associated Press, that she did not vote for Clinton. But her statement Friday was her strongest to date.

Hyde-Smith served 11 years in the state Senate as a Democrat before switching parties in late 2010. McDaniel cites a former state Democratic Party chairman, Rickey Cole, as the source for saying Hyde-Smith voted for Clinton.

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith, who was in her second term as state agriculture commissioner, to temporarily succeed longtime Republican Sen. Thad Cochran when the 80-year-old lawmaker retired in April. Hyde-Smith attended a campaign rally Tuesday night in Southaven with President Donald Trump, who has endorsed her.

Party labels will not appear on the Nov. 6 ballot for the special election, although candidates are telling voters their party affiliation. If nobody receives a majority in the Nov. 6 special election, the top two will go to a Nov. 27 runoff. The winner will serve the final two years of the term Cochran started.

Espy said Friday that he is willing to debate, even on short notice, if Hyde-Smith participates.

“It’s got to be a robust debate with the major candidates,” said Espy, a former U.S. House member and former U.S. agriculture secretary.

McDaniel narrowly lost a Republican primary to Cochran in 2014 and is now in his third term as a state senator. He held a live event Thursday night on Facebook to take questions from people.

“Any politician who dares to run for an office, I believe they all should all stand in front of the people and debate,” McDaniel said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have that in this state because the establishment cannot defend their candidates.”

Bartee, a former military intelligence officer, is running a low-budget campaign.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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