Cindy Hyde-Smith faces runoff challenge from Mike Espy for Mississippi Senate seat
For all the recount drama in some Senate races, there’s still one awaiting the actual election: Mississippi.
No candidate managed to crack the 50 percent threshold in voting last week, so the state now faces a Nov. 27 runoff in the showdown to serve out the rest of the term of former Sen. Thad Cochran, who resigned earlier this year.
Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, who was appointed to the seat this spring, won the most votes last week, edging out second-place finisher Mike Espy, a former Agriculture Secretary in the Clinton administration.
Ms. Hyde-Smith is considered the favorite but Mr. Espy, 64, over the weekend seized on a remark Ms. Hyde-Smith, 59, made on Nov. 2, during a campaign stop in Tupelo, addressing a supporter she admired and saying that “if he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be in the front row.”
“It’s very disruptive and it’s hurtful and harmful,” Mr. Espy said on CNN Monday morning. “It’s hurtful to the millions of Mississippians who are people of good will, and harmful because it’s indicative of the kind of statement that has held Mississippi back.”
Ms. Hyde-Smith released a statement Sunday, following the comment’s publication, dismissing the flap.
“In a comment on Nov. 2, I referred to accepting an invitation to a speaking engagement,” her statement read. “In referencing the one who invited me, I used an exaggerated expression of regard, and an attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous.”
The “public hanging” phrase summoned memories of Mississippi’s sordid history of racism that saw black people lynched or brutally murdered well into the 20th century, and became a bloody center of the civil rights battles that engulfed the Deep South in the 1960s.
Ms. Hyde-Smith is running with some key endorsements, including President Trump who, like her, was a Democrat before turning Republican in 2010.
But perhaps more important for her on the ground in Mississippi is the endorsement of state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a conservative who took 16.6 percent of the vote last week, prompting the runoff.
Mr. McDaniel, who also sought Mr. Trump’s endorsement, said he was throwing his support behind Ms. Hyde-Smith as a gesture of partisan unity and support for the president’s agenda.
“I don’t want my base being unhappy or mad at President Trump,” he told The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson last week. “We need to help him get his agenda done. It’s obviously no secret that [Ms. Hyde-Smith] and I have significant policy disagreements, but President Trump has endorsed her and I’m going to support President Trump.”
Polling had shown Mr. McDaniel, who still contests a primary loss to then-Sen. Cochran in 2014, as a less formidable opponent for Mr. Espy. Should he have been in the runoff against Mr. Espy rather than Ms. Hyde-Smith, political oddsmakers considered it a much more competitive race.
The race won’t affect control of the Senate Republicans will hold at least 51 of the 100 seats no matter what.
That too could hurt Mr. Espy, said Marvin King, an associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi.
If Mississippi became the deciding factor in control it might have unlocked money and national attention that could have aided Mr. Espy, the professor said.
“With apologies to Tip O’Neill, I’m not sure all politics is local any more,” Mr. King said, noting how Ms. Hyde-Smith makes a point of tying herself to Mr. Trump in a state where his popularity is very high.
“And so Espy faces a real uphill battle,” Mr. King said. “He doesn’t have the money or the charisma that Beto O’Rourke just had in Texas, and while Mississippi is a more affordable place to run a campaign, he doesn’t really have the opportunity to raise the millions you would need to hammer home your points.”
Aware of the fundraising pitfalls, national Democrats are trying to come to Mr. Espy’s aid.
Liberal superstar Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, sent a fundraising plea to her supporters Tuesday asking them to back Mr. Espy. So did Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who lost his own re-election bid last week.
“Every election is a chance to fight for our values. Mike Espy would make us proud, and Mississippi needs a Senator who brings people together,” Ms. Warren said in her missive.
Mr. Espy will get one chance to reach a statewide audience as he accepted an invitation Tuesday to a Nov. 20 debate being hosted in Jackson by the Mississippi Farm Bureau.