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What's Happening in the Mississippi Senate Runoff

The race has come to be defined more by controversy than by policy.

YouTube Screenshot via TIME Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/NewscomYouTube Screenshot via TIME Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/NewscomMore than two weeks after Election Day, the 2018 midterms aren't quite over. In Mississippi, neither Republican incumbent Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith nor Democratic challenger Mike Espy received a majority of the vote on Election Day. As a result, they'll face off tomorrow in the culmination of a race that's come to be defined more by controversy than by policy.

The runoff follows the retirement of longtime Sen. Thad Cochran, a Republican, who had more than two years remaining in his term when he stepped down. GOP Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith, who previously served as agriculture and commerce secretary, to fill Cochran's seat. Meanwhile, a special election was scheduled for November 6, with the major candidates including Smith, Clinton-era agriculture secretary Espy, and state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a conservative who also ran for Senate in 2014.

On Election Day, Hyde-Smith won a plurality with 41.5 percent of the vote—but Espy wasn't far behind with 40.6 percent. McDaniel's 16.5 percent wasn't nearly enough to win, but it was enough to ensure a runoff.

Policy-wise, neither candidate's views are that surprising. Hyde-Smith is a boilerplate conservative, with her campaign website highlighting her opposition to abortion and illegal immigration as well as her support for the Second Amendment. Espy is a relative moderate on some issues, including immigration, where he supports border security but opposes President Donald Trump's proposed border wall. As ABC News reports, Espy has said he'll be more than happy to work with Trump "if it's good for Mississippi."

But the candidates' policies have gotten significantly less attention than a series of controversies that have engulfed the race since Election Day. On November 11, Bayou Brief publisher Lamar White Jr. posted a video from November 2 in which Hyde-Smith says that if one of her supporters invited her "to a public hanging," she'd "be on the front row." Her remarks drew widespread criticism, given Mississippi's history of lynching African Americans. Though she apologized, several companies who had previously donated to her campaign, including Major League Baseball and Walmart, asked for their money back.

The "public hanging" controversy was just the start. Another video from White, posted on November 15 but taken on November 3, showed Hyde-Smith making a joke about voter suppression. The candidate told supporters at a campaign stop that "there's a lot of liberal folks in those other schools who maybe we don't want to vote. Maybe we want to make it just a little more difficult. And I think that's a great idea."

Hyde-Smith has also faced criticism for attending a segregation academy—a private school originally established for white children who wanted to avoid the newly integrated public schools—and for sending her daughter to the same institution. CNN noted that as a state senator, Hyde-Smith co-sponsored legislation to honor "the last known living 'Real Daughter' of the Confederacy living in Mississippi." Also last week, a 2014 photo posted to Facebook of Hyde-Smith wearing a Confederate soldier's hat resurfaced.

To some observers, the race brought to mind last year's special Senate election in Alabama, where Democrat Doug Jones upset Republican Roy Moore. There are some similarities: Both Deep South states usually go Republican, and Trump carried each by a large margin in the 2016 election. And like Hyde-Smith, Moore was mired in controversy in the days leading up to the election. The controversies were rather different, though—he was accused of inappropriate behavior with underage girls, not potentially insensitive comments.

A recent poll has Hyde-Smith up by 10 points: 54 percent to 44 percent. But no other major polls have been conducted since Election Day, so Republicans are still on edge. "I think Espy supporters are probably a little more energized than Hyde-Smith," Henry Barbour, the Republican National Committee's national committeeman in Mississippi, tells Politico. "We don't want to have an Alabama," he adds.

It's not that likely. According to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, Hyde-Smith has a greater chance to win, even if "observers might be surprised by how close the margin ends up being." FiveThirtyEight, meanwhile, points out that "there's not a lot of evidence that Hyde-Smith's gaffes have thrown this race wide open."

Whoever does end up winning will get to be a first—Hyde-Smith would be the first woman elected to represent the state in the Senate, while Espy would be the first black senator elected in the state in more than 125 years. Regardless of the outcome, Republicans will have a Senate majority.

CORRECTION: This post originally stated that if elected, Espy would be Mississippi's first African American senator. In fact, Mississippi had two black senators during the Reconstruction era: Hiram Revels and Blanche K. Bruce. Espy would be the state's first black senator since Bruce left office in 1881, and this post has been updated to reflect that.

Photo Credit: YouTube Screenshot via TIME Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom

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  • Dillinger||

    >>>Hyde-Smith says that if one of her supporters invited her "to a public hanging," she'd "be on the front row."

    new level of stupid here.

  • Matthew Chalice||

    This is what happens when you try to out-Trump Trump.

  • bevis the lumberjack||

    Stupid thing for her to say that can be explained by the fact that she's apparently an idiot, but "public hanging" does not necessarily equate to "lynching". Public hangings used to be a thing in the USA with big crowds and picnics and such. The vast majority of the public hangings were not extra-judicial.

    I have no idea which way she meant it, of course.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    How do you figure she meant it when she described a photograph in which she was wearing a Confederate hat as 'the best of Mississippi history?'

  • bigby||

    "Paul Reed, a University of Alabama professor who specializes in the sociolinguistic history of Southern and Appalachian English varieties… said that the phrase had indeed once been used as an expression of regard. People would use the idiom to convey that they thought so highly of someone they would attend something as distasteful as a public hanging with him. "

    Learn to read.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    How do you figure she meant it when she described a photograph in which she was wearing a Confederate hat as 'the best of Mississippi history?'

  • bevis the lumberjack||

    I don't know how she meant it - I said it right there in plain English. Neither do you. Unlike you, I'm open-minded enough to recognize what I know and what I don't know. You simply filter it through your bias-confirming political perspective and get your answer. Because you're, you know, a bigot.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    She wore a Confederate hat. Published the photograph. Described it as the 'best of Mississippi history.'

    That's the work of a bigot.

    The work of bevis and others like him is to appease the bigotry.

    Carry on clingers. So far as losers can carry anything.

  • Dillinger||

    w/o race-angle, still appalled.

  • bevis the lumberjack||

    Oh, I agree. Stupid thing to say. But it's a problem when everybody jumps on the racist thing when something isn't racist.

    If everything is racist, then nothing is. Or something like that.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    She has a string of racist utterances and conduct because she's a racist.

    You can strive to explain it away, bevis, but all that does is brand you with bigotry, too.

    One of the things America can be proudest of during my lifetime is that our bigots are now on the defensive, and no longer wish to be known as bigots, at least not publicly. Just one more example of the losers' obediance to the winners of the American culture war.

  • ||

    Surely you have guessed her intent.

  • Fred R.||

    Hiram Revels was Mississippi's first black senator.

  • Matthew Chalice||

    I'm glad I'm not the only one who caught that!

  • Hendo||

    Thanks for saving me the trouble of pointing this out. Not only was Revels Mississippi's first black senator, he was the first black senator in the nation.

    There have been a total of 10 black senators in the whole history of the United States. You'd think the author might have taken the 30 seconds necessary to find out whether one of them was from Mississippi.

  • DiegoF||

    Let me try to guess off the top of my head

    Revels
    That other black dude from Reconstruction
    Ed Brooke
    Carol Moseley-Braun
    Barack Obama
    Roland Burris (dude who Blagojevich appointed; never elected
    Tim Scott
    Kamala Harris (I say she and Obama count for one together)
    Cory Booker

    I'm missing one or you got one too many.

  • Matthew Chalice||

  • bigby||

    "But Hyde-Smith's worst crime was her use of the term "public hanging." After a supporter praised her at a rally she said, "If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row." It was clearly an offhand remark with no racial or any other serious meaning. And that's how everyone present took it. But social justice warrior cum "journalist" Lamar White got a copy, edited the original, and gleefully Tweeted a version he clearly hoped would aid Espy and the Democrats. White claims Hyde-Smith wasn't kidding, but a more honest take can be found at the New York Times, whose editors had to ask a linguist to decode the expression:

    Paul Reed, a University of Alabama professor who specializes in the sociolinguistic history of Southern and Appalachian English varieties… said that the phrase had indeed once been used as an expression of regard. People would use the idiom to convey that they thought so highly of someone they would attend something as distasteful as a public hanging with him. "

  • DiegoF||

    I suspected it was something like that. Ah the times we live in. Fortunately they did not get away with it in Florida and they will not in Mississippi. I still don't like her; I think she's a lightweight.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    When I opine that our vestigial bigots no longer wish to be known as bigots, at least not in public, Mississippi is vividly excepted.

  • Pastor Arthur M. Kirkland||

    Damn straight. While libertarians should hew to the non-aggression principle, Mississippi is uniquely loathsome in its embrace of bucktoothed, dimwitted bigotry, so much so that burning the whole place to the ground would be justified.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    In how many states would an elected official voluntarily offer the string of racist statements and actions that Sen. Hyde-Smith has provided? Mississippi may not be uniquely loathsome -- certainly while Alabama still exists -- but it is loathsome, a moral, political, cultural, educational, and economic drain and stain on America.

  • Pastor Arthur M. Kirkland||

    I totally agree, but Mississippi *is* uniquely loathsome. At least the tobacco-spitting ingrates who live in Alabama had the decency to elect Doug Jones to the Senate. Mississippi probably won't do that, because the backwater in their neck of the woods contains a strain of fluoride (racism) so virulent that the state won't renounce its own bigotry.

    Alabama and Mississippi are also the only two states where majorities of the population oppose same-sex marriage. Instead of wasting money on the Space Force, Orange Hitler should send some troops to those states to aid in the re-education of the masses. There's no reason for such repugnant points of view to exist in the twenty-first century.

  • Pastor Arthur M. Kirkland||

    A modern-day libertarian ought to be a Democrat. Republicans are the party of racism of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and gun cultism. They need to be destroyed, and their ashes should be scattered to the four winds. A newer, more progressive society shall take root in their absence.

  • DiegoF||

    This new account blazes bold new trails in the art of parody. A parody that is understated compared to its subject? Intriguing new twist!

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Every bigoted, authoritarian, right-wing mini-me is amusing.

  • Pastor Arthur M. Kirkland||

    Mini-Me? I'm an admirer. There used to be only one person in these comments educating the rubes on the extent to which they are bigoted.

    Now, there are two.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I don't care how stupid she is. He's also an idiot and I need that Second Amendment buttress.

  • 68W58||

    Hyde-Smith wins and it won't be close.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Racism still is tough to beat in a can't-keep-up backwater such as Mississippi.

  • Pastor Arthur M. Kirkland||

    Hyde-Smith should go back to serving coffee at a truckers' diner. That a bumpkin like her can serve in the Senate alongside such libertarian thinkers as Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar (Gillibrand gets no points for driving out Franken) is reprehensible.

    She's the Tweedledum to Sarah Palin's Tweedledee.

  • ||

    I always thought Reason readers were somewhat intellectual,but this forum disproves that often.

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