Incumbent Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith won the Mississippi special election runoff on Tuesday, which marked the official end of the November midterms. Hyde-Smith, a Republican, was appointed to replace former Senator Thad Cochran, who resigned his post earlier this year citing concerns about his health. Having already sat in the Senate for eight months (although much of that time was spent campaigning), she will serve out the remainder of the term and be eligible for reelection in 2020.
The race was remarkably close for Mississippi, a Deep South red state if ever there was one. No Democrat has won a senate seat in the state in over 35 years, and the state has consistently voted Republican in the presidential election since 1972. But Hyde-Smith was by many standards an extraordinarily weak candidate, who was refused Trump’s endorsement when she was appointed in April because, as administration officials told Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant in a phone call, of her history as a Democrat (the hypocrisy need hardly be noted). That would explain why her opponent, Mike Espy, who himself admitted during a debate that he was “lucky” because of the controversies trailing Hyde-Smith, managed to push the race into overtime and in the end pull out close to 45 percent of the vote. Trump, by comparison, defeated Clinton by an 18-points margin in 2016 in Mississippi, the only state with the confederate battle emblem in its flag.
Hyde-Smith’s unusually close campaign against Democrat Mike Espy was plagued by accusations of racism. A viral video of the senator speaking to a small gathering of supporters in public lit a fire under the electorate, as suddenly the afterthought of an election for an already solidly-Republican senate became an issue of national concern. In the video the senator, who is also a cattle rancher, is seen praising a fellow cattle rancher and supporter of her campaign. “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be in the front row,” she says to laughter and applause.
The remark set of a media frenzy, forcing the Hyde-Smith campaign to issue a pat statement. “In referencing the one who invited me [to a speaking engagement], I used an exaggerated expression of regard,” it said, “and any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous.”
Governor Phil Bryant, who defended Hyde-Smith throughout the administration’s early concern about her party hopping, tried defending his appointee and ended up digging her a deeper, stranger hole. Standing beside Hyde-Smith and President Carol Tobias of the National Right to Life anti-abortion group, which endorsed the senator, Bryant said that perhaps what she said could have been “phrased better,” and defended Mississippi’s record on race against mounting national criticism.
“I brought the president of the United States here to open the Civil Rights Museum, and African American leaders failed to even come to the event because the President of the United States was there,” he said. “Today, I talked about the genocide of 20 million African American children. See, in my heart, I am confused about where the outrage is at about 20 million African American children that have been aborted.”
This and Bryant’s earlier comments about black women who choose to have an abortion committing “African American genocide” did not, as one might imagine, have the intended effect of shifting the national spotlight away from Hyde-Smith.
Instead, the charges of racism only multiplied. A report in the Jackson Free Press detailed Hyde-Smith’s transfer to a segregated all-white private school established in 1970, just months after the Supreme Court demanded that Mississippi integrate its public schools, which had essentially remained segregated for first 15 years after Brown v. Board of Ed. “The only reason people of my generation and Cindy’s generation went to segregation academies was to keep the white kids and the black kids apart,” said the former chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party Rickey Cole, who knew Hyde-Smith back when she was a member of the party. Anyone in doubt as to the senator’s opinion of such schools should consider Brookhaven Academy, where she sent her daughter. In 2016, while Hyde-Smith’s daughter attended, the academy enrolled 386 white children and one black child in a town that is 55 percent African American.
Only days after the video of her “public hanging” comment surfaced, another video shot around the web featuring Hyde-Smith, who in it suggests to another small group of supporters that it’s a “great idea” for the state to have laws making it “just a little more difficult” for liberal university students to vote. The video again struck a national chord in an election season dominated by charges of voter suppression against Republican candidates, most notably Georgia’s governor-elect Brian Kemp.
The candidate, who repeatedly refused to comment on the “public hanging” phrase, was finally forced to follow up during a televised debate last week, stumbling a bit on her prepared remarks. “For anyone that was offended by my comments, I certainly apologize. There was no ill will, no intent whatsoever in my statement,” she said, assuring the audience that she would not “enjoy any type of capital punishment, sitting there witnessing this.”
“No one twisted your comments because your comments were live, it came out of your mouth,” Espy responded.
Also in the debate, Hyde-Smith, who took hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from Super PACs and other large corporate donations, defended the current system of campaign finance and said that Obamacare “ruined rural America.”
Espy was the first black congressman in Mississippi since Reconstruction and the secretary of agriculture under Bill Clinton. Espy dealt with his own share of controversies during the campaign. Chief among these were the 30-count indictment he was served while in the Clinton administration (of which he was ultimately cleared), and his unscrupulous lobbying work for the government of Cote d’Ivoire. “Cindy Hyde-Smith’s comments are reprehensible,” said Espy, who did not shy away from attacking her for them over the course of the month. “They have no place in our political discourse, in Mississippi, or our country.”
“Only with a strong senate GOP majority can we defend your tax cuts, defend your 2nd amendment, protect your Medicare and Social Security, and confirm judges who will interpret the constitution exactly as written,” said President Trump, who stumped for Hyde-Smith at two campaign stops after initially opposing her appointment. He congratulated her on Twitter afterwards: “We are all very proud of you!”