The Slatest

Cindy Hyde-Smith Survives “Public Hanging” Controversy, Wins Mississippi Runoff

Donald Trump and Sen Cindy Hyde-Smith speak to supporters during a rally in Biloxi, Mississippi, on November 26, 2018.
Donald Trump and Sen Cindy Hyde-Smith speak to supporters during a rally in Biloxi, Mississippi, on November 26, 2018.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

There will be no Democratic shocker in Mississippi. Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith defeated Democrat Mike Espy on Tuesday in a runoff to serve out the remaining two years of retired GOP Sen. Thad Cochran’s term. The Associated Press called the race with roughly 85 percent of the vote counted, and with Hyde-Smith up 10 percentage points, 55 percent to 45 percent.

Hyde-Smith was appointed as Cochran’s interim replacement in March after he retired for health reasons. With the victory, the GOP will begin next year with a six-seat advantage in the Senate, 53 to 47. That’s two more seats than they have now, a significant gain but a small one given that Republicans benefitted from a midterm calendar that was one of the most favorable either party has seen since the direct election of senators began more than a century ago.

Espy was a heavy underdog from the start of the race: Mississippi hasn’t elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in more than 30 years, and it hasn’t sent an African American to the upper chamber since Reconstruction—despite having the highest share of black Americans in the nation (38 percent). And yet Democrats thought that maybe, just maybe, things would be different this time after Hyde-Smith was caught on camera this month making a pair of Kinsley gaffes that evoked her state’s history of racial violence and disenfranchisement. Speaking at a campaign stop in Tupelo on Nov. 2, Hyde-Smith decided that the best way to describe her loyalty to one of her supporters was with what sounded like an allusion to lynching: “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” Then, at an event at Mississippi State University the following day, Hyde-Smith spoke fondly of voter suppression on campuses, in a state with more than a half-dozen historically black colleges and universities: “There’s a lot of liberal folks in those other schools that maybe we don’t want to vote. Maybe we just want to make it a little more difficult.”

Remarkably, things only got messier from there. Hyde-Smith’s attempts to clean up after herself did not go smoothly. Then, reporters who dug into her past discovered one example after another of her embracing Confederate history and its racist legacy, often in her role as an elected official: She pushed a revisionist history of the Civil War while a state lawmaker; she posted photos to Facebook of herself posing in Confederate garb while she was state agriculture commissioner; and as a teenager she attended an all-white private academy created specifically in response to the desegregation of public schools, and then later enrolled her own daughter in another such school, from which she graduated in 2017.

Democrats hoped that would motivate black voters to turn out in droves for Espy while also prompting a significant slice of white Republicans to cross party lines, or to simply stay home. But as my colleague Jamelle Bouie explained ahead of the returns, that was always a long shot in a rural state defined by stark racial polarization:

The inelasticity of the Mississippi electorate means the odds are not in his favor. Even with her missteps, Hyde-Smith is likely to win. She is the beneficiary of a deeply racialized white political culture that reads black political power as an existential threat, which means she can almost certainly count on the overwhelming support of white voters in the state to carry her to victory. 

In order to energize those white voters, Hyde-Smith embraced Donald Trump early and often in a state he won by 18 points two years ago. She featured him prominently in her TV ads and on the side of her campaign bus. She brought him up repeatedly at last week’s debate. And the president touched down in the state on Monday for two get-out-the-vote rallies, at one of which he wondered aloud how Espy “fit in” in the state where he was born and raised.

Espy ultimately failed to flip a ruby-red seat to blue the way Doug Jones did last year in Alabama, where Democrats benefitted greatly from accusations that Roy Moore was a sexual predator but where Jones wouldn’t have won without black voters who reacted to Moore fondly recalling the days of slavery. While Espy came up short in the runoff, he appears all but certain to improve on his showing on Nov. 6, when he finished with roughly 40 percent of the vote to Hyde-Smith’s 41 percent, in a four-way race that required someone to win a majority to avoid a runoff. The problem for Espy, of course, was that Hyde-Smith improved on her share by even more—most likely winning over a significant slice of the 16 percent of voters on Election Day who voted for a second Republican, conservative firebrand Chris McDaniel.