With less than a week to go until a special election in Mississippi that’s attracted outsize national attention, both Senate candidates in Tuesday’s debate at times looked unaccustomed to the spotlight.
Republican incumbent Cindy Hyde-Smith, who was appointed to the open Senate seat earlier this year, didn’t even bother taking press questions after the debate concluded. Mississippi’s other GOP senator, Roger Wicker, came onstage in her place.
Hyde-Smith is running against Democratic former Rep. Mike Espy to fill out the remainder of former Republican Sen. Thad Cochran’s term. Hyde-Smith finished first in a four-way contest earlier this month, but because no one failed to clear 50 percent of the vote, the race will be decided in a Nov. 27 runoff.
The moderators peppered both candidates with a few policy questions before getting to the issue that’s generated the most buzz in this race. In a video that surfaced last week, Hyde-Smith can be heard saying that she’d “be on the front row” if a supporter invited her to a public hanging.
She issued an apology Tuesday night “to anyone who was offended,” but insisted there was “no ill will” intended in her remark and accused her opponent of twisting her comments for political gain.
Hyde-Smith drew more headlines after another video surfaced in which she appeared to express support for making it “just a little more difficult” for liberal college students to vote. Her campaign later said she had been joking.
On Tuesday, reports emerged of photos she posted to her Facebook account in 2014 that showed her wearing a Confederate soldier’s hat and holding a rifle, under a caption that partly read, “Mississippi history at its best!”
Democrats have leaned into her comments to paint Hyde-Smith as a relic of the Deep South’s racial politics. Before Tuesday’s debate, Espy’s campaign released two new TV ads, one of which calls attention to those comments.
“We can’t afford a senator who embarrasses us and reinforces the stereotypes we’ve worked so hard to overcome,” the narrator in the ad says.
Also on Tuesday, Walmart withdrew its support for Hyde-Smith and asked for its campaign contribution back.
During the debate, Espy fired back at Hyde-Smith’s assertion that her comments had been “twisted” for political gain.
“No one twisted your comments,” Espy said. “Your comments were live. You know, it came out of your mouth.”
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Hyde-Smith’s biggest pitch to voters was that she supports President Donald Trump, who carried the Magnolia State by nearly 18 points in 2016. She used her opening and closing statements to promote Trump’s upcoming election eve rallies in the state.
She attacked Espy for not supporting the border wall and said she was proud of Trump’s efforts on tariffs. Her talking points echoed those of most other Republican Senate candidates who campaigned in deep red states this year, arguing that Espy is “too liberal” for Mississippi and would side with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer. She mentioned “abortion” or “unborn children” no fewer than five times in her closing remarks.
At one point, when discussing legislation, she fumbled the name of North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, referring to him as Tom Thompson instead. She tried to paint Espy as out of touch, telling viewers that he was in Congress a century ago. (He served in the House from 1987 to 1993.)
Espy wasn’t without his own entreaties to Trump supporters. He opened by calling his a “Mississippi first” agenda, an implicit allusion to Trump’s “America first” slogan.
Hyde-Smith repeatedly attacked Espy for having lobbied for the former president of the Ivory Coast who’s currently on trial for crimes against humanity. In response to her attacks, he often tried to put her on defense by talking about her alliance with Senate Republicans on health care, arguing that she’d support weakening protections for people with pre-existing health conditions.
Hyde-Smith insisted she won’t, saying, “I don’t really know anyone who doesn’t have a pre-existing condition.”
Espy turned to his own personal experience to drive home his point. “I have a pre-existing condition,” he said. “I have a raspy voice.” He explained that while he has insurance, he has to fight with his insurance company to get them to pay for the injections he needs in his throat.
He concluded by wishing Cochran well and again reminded viewers of Hyde-Smith’s comments about a public hanging. “I’m not going back to yesteryear,” he said.
Tuesday’s debate was closed to the public and any press besides the moderators. That was a stipulation from the Hyde-Smith campaign, according to the Jackson Free Press. Espy came back out onstage and took more questions after the debate, but Hyde-Smith was absent during her turn. Appearing as a spokesman for her campaign, Wicker explained that the senator was on her way to see her husband, who had been in a prayer meeting and hadn’t been able to watch the debate.
Almost all of the questions to Wicker were about Hyde-Smith’s public hanging comments. He brushed past them, saying he thought her apology was genuine, and then mused about the press’ sudden interest in the issue and in him as a surrogate in the race.
“I think it’s most interesting that the press feels it should ask this question over and over again. I think it says a lot, frankly, about you guys,” Wicker said.
“I really wish I had this much attention over the last 10 years in the Senate,” he said.