Despite controversial comments and an embrace of Confederate history that cost her the support of corporate donors, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith has won the runoff in Mississippi’s special Senate election.
With 76 percent of precincts reporting, Hyde-Smith led former Democratic Rep. Mike Espy 56 percent to 44 percent when The Associated Press called the race. The appointed senator becomes the first woman from Mississippi to be elected to Congress.
A Senate race in a state President Donald Trump carried by 18 points in 2016 wasn’t supposed to be competitive. But Hyde-Smith proved to be a flawed candidate whose candidacy prompted investment from national groups from both parties. National Republicans alone had spent nearly $3 million here by Tuesday. And President Donald Trump held two rallies for Hyde-Smith on the eve of the election to bolster her candidacy.
All of that helped the former state agriculture commissioner dull Espy’s efforts to paint her as someone who would take the state backwards.
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Hyde-Smith will now fill out the remainder of former Republican Sen. Thad Cochran’s term, which expires in 2020. Cochran resigned for health reasons earlier this year, and GOP Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith to the vacant seat earlier this year. Hyde-Smith finished first in a four-way jungle primary on Nov. 6, followed closely by Espy. But because no one cleared 50 percent of the vote, they both advanced to Tuesday’s runoff.
As an isolated special election — and the last federal election of the 2018 cycle — the runoff attracted outsize national attention. And then came the release of a video in which Hyde-Smith told a supporter she’d “be on the front row” of a public hanging if he invited her. In another video she appeared to express support for making it “just a little more difficult” for liberal college students to vote.
In a deep Southern state with a history of lynchings of African-Americans, her remarks took on racial connotations. She at first refused to apologize, and only at last week’s debate did she offer a conditional apology “to anyone offended.” She quickly pivoted to accusing her opponent of twisting her comment into a political attack against her.
During that same debate, Espy, who was Agriculture secretary during the Clinton administration, accused Hyde-Smith of giving the state a “black eye.” An ad from his campaign released that day said, “We can’t afford a senator who embarrasses us and reinforces the stereotypes we’ve worked so hard to overcome.”
As corporations started to ask Hyde-Smith for refunds of their campaign contributions, scrutiny of the senator’s past continued. Photos on her Facebook page from 2014 showed her wearing a Confederate soldier’s hat during a tour of the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library. “Mississippi history at its best!” she wrote in the post. Over the weekend, the Jackson Free Press reported that Hyde-Smith had attended a segregated high school in the 1970s.
Espy’s campaign tried to make an economic argument about the harm Hyde-Smith and her comments would do to Mississippi if she were elected. One TV ad from late last week name-drops Walmart, At&T and Union Pacific as companies that have pulled their support of her. She’d be a “disaster” for Mississippi, the ad says, suggesting her views would cost the state jobs. As a candidate, Espy struck a moderate tone, opening last week’s debate with a “Mississippi first” slogan that implicitly alluded to Trump’s own rhetoric.
But Hyde-Smith leaned into her Trump allegiance hard. It was the centerpiece of her campaign. An elusive candidate, Hyde-Smith hid behind the president, driving around in a bus with her face plastered next to his (called the “MAGA Wagon”), opening and closing the debate with a pitch for his rallies, and letting him do most of the talking at those two election eve events.
Democrats hoped Espy would be able to peel off some educated white voters who were turned off by Hyde-Smith’s controversial comments. But his biggest hope was driving up turnout among African-Americans. Espy would have been the first African-American senator elected from Mississippi since Reconstruction.
His team ran what one source familiar with the campaign’s efforts called the “largest, strongest field program Mississippi has seen.” The campaign knocked on over 100,000 doors and volunteers made over 600,000 phone calls, just for the runoff. Working with the state Democratic Party, the campaign sent millions of text messages reminding potential supporters to vote.