This is not how it was supposed to go for Republicans—not in Mississippi, a state that hasn’t sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in more than three decades. And especially not after Election Day, when state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a proudly politically incorrect conservative firebrand—who GOP leaders had long feared would gaffe away an otherwise safe seat—came up well short in a four-way special election. McDaniel’s defeat was supposed to clear the way for interim Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith to coast to victory in her Nov. 27 runoff against Democrat Mike Espy.
Supposed to is the key phrase there. Pretty much everyone involved now believes Espy has a real chance to pull off a special-election stunner on Tuesday. The reason? Ironically, a pair of caught-on-camera gaffes from Hyde-Smith, whom Republican Gov. Phil Bryant had tapped to replace retired Sen. Thad Cochran earlier this year—in no small part because Bryant thought he could trust her to not put her foot in her mouth.
Hyde-Smith made the controversial comments in the lead-up to Election Day, but both went unnoticed until a week later, when the publisher of progressive Louisiana publication the Bayou Brief shared them on social media. 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.”
Mississippi has the highest share of black Americans in the nation—more than 37 percent of the state’s residents. If mobilized and able to vote, that population represents a potent political force. Once Hyde-Smith’s inflammatory remarks became public, they did what Mississippi Democrats struggled to accomplish beforehand: put the media-averse Hyde-Smith on the defensive. National Democrats including Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Joe Biden all quickly lent their support to Espy, while Republicans have strained to come to Hyde-Smith’s aid.
Hyde-Smith’s attempt to clean up her own mess was anything but smooth. Her campaign tried to explain away the “public hanging” comment as an “exaggerated expression of regard” (huh?) for her friend and the voter-suppression quote as nothing more than an innocent joke. Then there was a press conference where the candidate refused to elaborate on what she said, and Gov. Bryant tried to change the conversation to one about black women who have abortions or, as he put it, “the genocide of 20 million African American children.”
Hyde-Smith finally offered a tepid apology during last week’s debate to “anyone that was offended by my comments,” only to quickly imply that she had said nothing that warranted apologizing. “This comment was twisted, and it was turned into a weapon to be used against me, a political weapon used for nothing but personal and political gain by my opponent,” she said.
“No one twisted your comments because your comments were live—you know, they came out of your mouth,” responded Espy, who if elected, would become the state’s first black senator since Reconstruction. “I don’t know what’s in your heart, but we all know what came out of your mouth.”
Remarkably, that was just the beginning. In the past week, reporters who went digging into Hyde-Smith’s 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 the Jackson Free Press documented, as a child 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.
Hyde-Smith remains the heavy favorite in a state Trump won by 18 points two years ago, but strange things can happen in one-off elections, and Democrats hope Hyde-Smith’s remarks convince black voters to turn out in full force for Espy while also alienating some slice of moderate Republicans who could decide to stay home. It’s conceivable: The two finished within 1 percentage point of each other on Election Day, 41 percent for Hyde-Smith and 40 percent for Espy. McDaniel finished a distant third with about 17 percent of the vote, enough to block Hyde-Smith from the majority she needed to win the election outright. A large share of McDaniel supporters would theoretically be enough to put Hyde-Smith over the top. But there’s reason to doubt they’ll all turn out for the establishment-approved Hyde-Smith, who lacks the in-your-face, Tea Party style McDaniel’s been running on for years. Alternatively, McDaniel supporters could now rally around Hyde-Smith following the controversy, but those numbers would have to be high enough to offset Hyde-Smith’s losses among her own base and any boost to Espy’s.
The GOP’s margin of victory in recent Mississippi elections has also been considerably smaller than it has been in Alabama, where Democrat Doug Jones beat Roy Moore in last year’s special Senate election. That race was dominated by accusations that Moore was a sexual predator, but Jones wouldn’t have won without black voters who also listened as Moore fondly recalled the days of slavery.
Last week’s debate also offered many Mississippians their first long look at Hyde-Smith, who was a little-known public official before being appointed to the Senate. She refused to take part in debates before the midterms and reportedly only agreed to this one after her campaign negotiated a set of ground rules it believed would be favorable, including the use of notes. Those turned out to be of limited value to Hyde-Smith, who in the course of an hour still managed to mangle the name of a fellow GOP senator (that would be North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, not “Thom Thompson”), vastly overstate how long ago Espy served in Congress (he took office in the late 1980s, not “nearly a century ago”), declare she would protect those with “pre-existence” conditions (while looking directly at her notes), complain Espy wanted to help “illegal aliens who aren’t even American citizens,” reference the “two clearly different opposite differences between me and my opponent,” and get the date of the runoff wrong more than once. (It is Nov. 27, not “Nov. 22,” aka Thanksgiving.)
And even as the debate moderator enforced strict time limits—some as short as 30 seconds—Hyde-Smith struggled to fill her allotted time. Here, for instance, was her answer to a question about whether there was any specific issue she would reach across the aisle on if elected:
Absolutely, but only if it’s good for Mississippians. I work across the aisle. I was known for that in the state Senate in my three terms as state senator—when I was there, I was known for working across the aisle with everybody. You know we are all God’s children and I treat everybody like that, but only if it’s good for Mississippians. For things that matter? You bet. I’d work across that aisle all day long—if it’s good for Mississippi. For those that are not good for Mississippi, I will not be there with them. I will oppose them, and do the things that I am supposed to do to be the U.S. senator from the great state of Mississippi, protecting our Mississippians.
One Mississippi, two Mississippi …
Espy wasn’t perfect, often struggling to finish his answers before his time was up. And it remains an open question whether he was able to convince enough GOP voters that he’s the moderate his record suggests he is, as opposed to the Chuck Schumer puppet Hyde-Smith has painted him as. The Democrat also struggled to explain his past lobbying work for an African despot now on trial at the International Criminal Court. But he repeatedly took advantage of the opening Hyde-Smith’s comments created, accusing her of giving the state “another black eye that we don’t need” and potentially hurting the state’s economy. “We got a senator here talking about public hangings and talking about voter suppression,” he said in his closing statement. “Ladies and gentleman, I am not going back to yesteryear. We are going to move forward.”
Moments before, Hyde-Smith also suggested she was looking forward—to Donald Trump’s visit to the state on Monday, for two get-out-the-vote rallies on her behalf. “You can go to Donaldjtrump.com to get those tickets,” she said for the second time in the debate. For a candidate trying to win a surprisingly close, nationally watched election after a series of controversial and indelicate remarks, highlighting the president’s support may have been the most coherent thing she said all night.