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Decision 18: Final U.S. Senate race will be decided in Mississippi Tuesday

Republican U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith tries to withstand controversies dogging her during the runoff with Democrat Mike Espy

♦By Rich Shumate,

JACKSON, Mississippi (CFP) — In the three weeks since the first round of voting in Mississippi’s special U.S. Senate election, Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith has faced a barrage of negative headlines in the national media and apologized for making a joke about attending a public hanging.

Cindy Hyde-Smith in 2014 Facebook photo at Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis’s home

And in a world where nothing on the internet ever goes away, a Facebook photo surfaced of Hyde-Smith — during a visit to the home of Jefferson Davis — wearing a Confederate cap, holding a rifle and calling the tableau “Mississippi history at its best.”

All of this was too much for Wal-Mart, which asked for its campaign contribution back.

But the question to be answered in Tuesday’s runoff is, will any of that be enough to allow her Democratic African-American opponent, Mike Espy, to defeat her in a bright red state where a Democrat hasn’t won a Senate race in 36 years?

Or to overcome very visible support from President Donald Trump, who is making visits to Tupelo and Biloxi on election eve to rally the base for Hyde-Smith?

Hyde-Smith is facing Espy in a special election to fill the remaining two years of the term of Republican Thad Cochran, the Mississippi icon who resigned in April due to ill health. She was appointed by Governor Phil Bryant to serve in the Senate temporarily until voters pick a permanent replacement in the special election.

Hyde-Smith, 59, from Brookhaven, was Mississippi’s agriculture commissioner until being appointed to the Senate. She was originally elected to the state Senate in 2000 as a Democrat but switched parties in 2010.

Former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy

Espy, 64, from Jackson, served three terms in the U.S. House before being picked by President Bill Clinton as agriculture secretary in 1993. He resigned in 1994 amid allegations that he had received improper gifts. He was later acquitted of federal corruption charges.

During the first round of voting November 6, Hyde-Smith and Espy tied at 41 percent, with another Republican in the race, State Senator Chris McDaniel, coming in third.

Given the overwhelming Republican tilt of the Magnolia State, Hyde-Smith was seen as a prohibitive favorite in the runoff. Indeed, McDaniel, who nearly beat Cochran in 2014, was seen as the biggest hurdle to her continued tenure in the Senate.

However, a series of controversies that have dogged her since the first round of voting have given Democrats hope that they might replicate the success they had in Alabama in 2017, when Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore amid allegations of sexual impropriety.

First, five days after the election, a video surfaced in which Hyde-Smith is heard telling a supporter that if he invited her to a public hanging, she would be in the front row. She insisted the remark was a joke, but her critics charged it was a racially insensitive remark to make in a state with a history of lynchings of African-Americans.

During their only campaign debate, Hyde-Smith apologized “to anyone who was offended by my comments,” insisting there was “no ill will” and that her record as senator and agriculture commissioner shows she harbors no racial animus.

“This comment was twisted, and it was turned into a weapon to be used against me — a political weapon used for nothing but personal, political gain by my opponent,” she said.

Another video surfaced November 15 in which Hyde-Smith says it would be a “great idea” to make it more difficult for liberals to vote, which her campaign insisted was a joke made to supporters and not advocacy of voter suppression.

Then a week before the runoff, news organizations began reporting a photo posted in 2014 on Hyde-Smith’s Facebook account, where she is donning a Confederate cap and carrying a rifle at Davis’s home in Biloxi.

The caption read: “I enjoyed my tour of Beauvoir. The Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library located in Biloxi. This is a must see. Currently on display are artifacts connected to the daily life of the Confederate Soldier including weapons. Mississippi history at its best!”

Her campaign did not offer any comment in the photo. But a spokeswoman pushed back hard when the Jackson Free Press reported that Hyde-Smith had attended a high school in the 1970s originally founded to allow white parents to avoid sending their children to segregated schools. The story included photos of a teenage Hyde-Smith posing with her cheerleading pom-poms.

“In their latest attempt to help Mike Espy, the gotcha liberal media has taken leave of their senses,” said spokeswoman Melissa Scallan. “They have stooped to a new low, attacking her entire family and trying to destroy her personally instead of focusing on the clear differences on the issues between Cindy Hyde-Smith and her far-left opponent.”

What won’t be clear until Tuesday is how much any of these controversies will affect the outcome of this race. Many white Mississippians of Hyde-Smith’s generation attended so-called “segregation academies” when they were young. And wearing a Confederate cap has a different connotation in a place where the state flag still contains the Confederate battle emblem than it does in media and political circles in Washington or New York.

Also, none of the controversies dogging Hyde-Smith comes anywhere close to the situation in Alabama, where Moore was accused of sexual misconduct with underage girls, which he denied.

Mississippi has the largest percentage of African-American residents of any state, 37 percent. So the result of the runoff will likely hinge on the turnout among African-American voters, who are expected to go Democratic in large numbers.

If African-Americans make up 30 percent of the electorate Tuesday, as they did in the first round of voting, Espy would need about a third of the white vote to get to a majority. If they make up 35 percent, he would need about a quarter of the white vote.

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