Cindy Hyde-Smith Easily Defeats Mike Espy In Mississippi Senate Runoff

In the end, the race between Cindy Hyde-Smith and Mike Espy was not even close.

Notwithstanding three weeks during which she seemingly did everything possible to open the door to an upset victory by former Congressman and former Clinton Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, Mississippi Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith ended up winning the Special Election to succeed retired Senator Thad Cochran rather easily:

Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, a Mississippi Republican who had to apologize for a cavalier reference to a public hanging, won a special runoff election on Tuesday, defeating the Democratic candidate, Mike Espy, who was trying become the state’s first black senator since Reconstruction.

Ms. Hyde-Smith’s victory, reported by The Associated Press, came in the final Senate race of the midterm elections and will set the Republican majority in the chamber at 53 to 47 once the new Congress is sworn in, a net pickup of two seats.

Teetering after several rhetorical gaffes drew a harsh spotlight to her campaign, Ms. Hyde-Smith received a last-minute boost from President Trump, who appeared at two rallies with her on Monday and cautioned Mississippians that a victory for Mr. Espy would also be one for Democratic leaders like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.

The Republican win came as a deep relief to the party and Mr. Trump in a state where they rarely struggle, especially in Senate contests. Mr. Trump boasted repeatedly this year about his influence in helping his preferred candidates win elections, but the party had to go to unusual lengths — with the two rallies, multiple tweets by the president, a vast financial investment and dozens of Republican election workers dispatched to the state — to help Ms. Hyde-Smith over the finish line.

Her victory is clearly good news for Senate Republicans, who will now have an expanded, conservative majority to help advance Mr. Trump’s judicial nominees and negotiate with a Democratic-led House.

With 95 percent of the precincts reporting, Ms. Hyde-Smith had just over 54 percent of the votes.

“The reason we won is because Mississippians know me and they know my heart,” she said on Tuesday night. “This win tonight, this victory, it’s about our conservative values, it’s about the things that mean the most to all of us Mississippians: our faith, our family.”

Mr. Espy was the third prominent black Democrat to go down to defeat in a statewide race in the South this year, following losses by two gubernatorial candidates, Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida.

Addressing supporters at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum here less than three hours after the polls closed, Mr. Espy said he had conceded to Ms. Hyde-Smith. “She has my prayers as she goes to Washington to unite a very divided Mississippi,” he said.

Ms. Hyde-Smith’s election reinforced Republicans’ grip on power in Mississippi, a state they have come to dominate since the early 2000s, and showed that the political realignments taking shape in parts of the South are still in a nascent stage in Mississippi.

Still, the fact that Ms. Hyde-Smith faced a challenging runoff election, after no candidate received a majority of the vote on Nov. 6, suggested that Democrats could make select races competitive once again. And the frantic efforts to salvage her seat signaled that rhetoric seemingly steeped in Mississippi’s racist past risks a modern political price.

Although Ms. Hyde-Smith was never on a glide path to power — she faced a Republican rival and Mr. Espy in the first round of voting, all but guaranteeing Tuesday’s runoff vote — her campaign became more seriously imperiled through her own statements, including one in which she said that if a supporter invited her to “a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”

Without that comment, and a handful of other controversial remarks, Democrats and Republicans alike said, Ms. Hyde-Smith’s victory on Tuesday would have been a near-lock.

Instead, Mr. Espy, 64, and his allies were able to seize on Ms. Hyde-Smith’s rhetoric and argue that it was an anachronistic representation of Mississippi, a state that has struggled mightily to repair its image more than a half-century after some of the gravest abuses of the civil rights era.

During a debate last week, Ms. Hyde-Smith, 59, who was the state agriculture commissioner until this year, said her “public hanging” remark reflected “no ill will,” and she asserted that she was being unfairly vilified.

Mr. Espy, a former agriculture secretary in the Clinton administration who was Mississippi’s first black member of Congress since Reconstruction, replied: “It came out of your mouth. I don’t know what’s in your heart, but we all know what came out of your mouth.”

Still, Mr. Espy refrained from attacking his opponent too strongly over her remarks, mindful of the large bloc of conservative white voters in the state who support Republicans and are deeply loyal to President Trump. It was a reflection of the balance Democrats need to strike as they try to make inroads in Southern states like Georgia and Texas, where appeals to the base of African-Americans, Hispanics and moderate suburbanites could alienate rural whites.

In region after region on Tuesday, Ms. Hyde-Smith was at her strongest in Mississippi’s rural and predominantly white counties, outpacing past Republican luminaries like Mitt Romney, the party’s presidential nominee in 2012. But in areas with greater numbers of college-educated white voters, such as the Memphis suburbs, she did less well, allowing Mr. Espy to draw closer than Democrats ordinarily do.

More from the Jackson Clarion-Ledger:

With lots of help from President Donald Trump, Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith defeated Democrat Mike Espy in Tuesday night’s U.S. Senate runoff in Mississippi.

Hyde-Smith will serve out the final two years of Thad Cochran’s term and make history as the first female elected to Congress from Mississippi. Espy would have made history, too. If he’d won, he’d be the first African American Mississippian elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction.

Hyde-Smith told the crowd at her Jackson election party: “You’ve handed me a victory. I’m not going to let you down. I am going to Washington, D.C., first thing in the morning … The reason we won is because Mississippians know me and they know my heart.”

“Thank you for stepping up, Mississippi.”

Shortly after the race was called, Trump — who had been in Mississippi rallying for her the night before — tweeted: “Congratulations to Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith on your big WIN in the Great State of Mississippi. We are all very proud of you!”

Hyde-Smith said she had talked to Trump by phone earlier in the night and told her crowd, “Right now, Mr. President, thank you so much for all of your help.”

Gov. Phil Bryant, a Trump ally, in April appointed Hyde-Smith to Cochran’s seat temporarily and helped her campaign and secure Trump’s endorsement.

“Cindy Hyde-Smith has come through the crucible of the most negative campaign in modern Mississippi,” Bryant said Tuesday night.  “She won with character and dignity —something her opponents know little of. She will continue to serve as the first woman from Mississippi elected to the United States Congress.”

In incomplete and unofficial results, Hyde-Smith led Espy 54 percent to 46 percent.

“I’m very proud of this historic campaign. And I’m so very grateful for all the support we received across Mississippi,” Espy said in a concession speech, moments after calling Hyde-Smith to congratulate her. He added he hopes she heads back to Washington, D.C. to “unite a very divided Mississippi.”

Espy reflected on what he called a grassroots campaign organization that was the “largest in a generation” in Mississippi. And he framed his run as only the start of a movement in a state that has long been dominated by Republican leadership.

“Make no mistake,” Espy said. “Tonight is the beginning, tonight is not the end. For those of you out there who have met in these universities, who have looked at our campaign, looked under the hood, and decided one day you want to run for office — go for it.”

Espy and Hyde-Smith were forced into a runoff when neither candidate took more than 50 percent in the four-way Nov. 6 special election. Each received about 41 percent of the vote in that contest.

The runoff — the final outlier of this year’s congressional midterms — drew the eyes of the nation, and Mississippi was cast in a harsh light as issues of race dominated the narrative in the closing weeks.

Comments Hyde-Smith referred to as an “exaggerated expression” about attending a public hanging if a friend invited her attracted a flurry of criticism, national media attention and references to Mississippi’s dark past including lynchings.

Sensing an opening in recent weeks, national Democrats focused money and energy on a Senate seat that would otherwise have been considered safely Republican in one of the reddest states in the country. This prompted the national GOP — and even Trump — to respond to help Hyde-Smith in the weeks between the Nov. 6 vote and Tuesday’s runoff. Nearly $5 million was spent on TV ads for the three weeks before the runoff.

Trump held rallies for Hyde-Smith in Tupelo and Biloxi on the eve of the election, saying, ”I don’t want to take my chances,” as he hoped to increase the GOP majority in the Senate to 53-47 with her win. Trump’s support previously appeared to buoy Hyde-Smith before the Nov. 6 special election, where she had faced a serious Republican challenger and the runoff.

Trump’s endorsement and her devotion to him and his agenda was the main theme of Hyde-Smith’s campaign, which otherwise relied on Republican red meat issues such as abortion, border security, gun rights, Senate confirmation of conservative judges and “our conservative values.”

Political experts in Mississippi said the Senate seat should have been an easy win for Republicans.

“It should have been a slam dunk,” said John Bruce, who chairs the Political Science Department at the University of Mississippi. “We’re here because of the president and the national mood. And we’re here because Cindy Hyde-Smith has run a bad campaign. She has tripped over herself more than once.”

As I noted in my preview post on Monday, notwithstanding the fact that Hyde-Smith opened the door to criticism and potentially a reason for voters who might otherwise support her to either stay home or switch sides the outcome of this race was never seriously in doubt. This is, after all, Mississippi, a state that has been more or less solidly Republican going back at least twenty years now, especially at the statewide level. The state last went for the Democratic Party’s Presidential nominee in the 1956 Presidential Election, and other than the 1960 Election, in which it went to “Southern Democratic Party” nominee Harry Byrd and 1968 when it went for George Wallace, the state has gone Republican in nearly every election since then, including the 1964 blowout election with the 1976 election between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford being the lone exception to that trend. In 2016, President Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by some 215,000 votes. Additionally, the state has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since John Stennis was re-elected to his final term in office in 1982. Finally, while the polling of the runoff re-election was limited, the small amount of that was done showed Hyde-Smith with a solid enough lead to support the conclusion. Perhaps signaling that, while national Democrats did send some money Espy’s way they did not invest heavily in the race in the manner that they had in Alabama last year and there was not a parade of out-of-state surrogates supporting Espy and campaigning for him in the three weeks between the Jungle Primary and the runoff yesterday. Had they believed Espy actually had a chance of winning then they would have obviously approached the race differently.

This morning some analysts are pointing to Espy’s better than expected showing in the runoff as a sign that states like Mississippi might be on a path toward an era where it could be possible for Democrats to start winning in the state again. While that day may one day come, I’d be cautious about drawing too many conclusions from the results of a Special Election on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. As I’ve noted before, Special Elections are typically very different animals from a typical GeneralElection both because turnout is generally smaller and because the Special Election tends to bring a different variety of voter to the poll than what you’d see on a regular Election Day. In Hyde-Smith’s case, for example, she will next be required to stand for re-election to a full term in her own right in just two years. Because this will be a Presidential election year in which the Republican nominee will be heavily favored to win the state by a huge margin, and those coattails will innure to Hyde-Smith’s benefit regardless of who her Democratic opponent turns out to be. For the foreseeable future, the best chance Democrats had of capturing this seat was this year. Future elections are going to be far more difficult for a Democrat to repeat Espy’s performance which, of course, was good but not nearly good enough.

In any case, with this win, the Republican majority in the Senate now stands at 53-47, a net gain of two seats from where the body stood prior to Election Day. While Republicans did see states like Nevada and Arizona slip out of their hands, they did manage to flip seats in North Dakota, Indiana, Missouri, and Florida, thus offsetting the Democratic gains in those two states. This somewhat stronger majority will strengthen the hand of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell going forward, especially when it comes to confirmation battles since it means that he doesn’t need to concern himself so much with the possibility of losing moderates like Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins on specific votes. It also puts the GOP in a somewhat stronger position heading into 2020 when they will have to defend the seats they won in 2014. As things stand now, Democrats would need to flip five Senate seats to win back the upper chamber, something that is obviously more difficult than what they would have had to do if the majority were still 51-49. As a result, we can expect the Senate to move aggressively on nominations, and that it will be a significant roadblock to any legislation the Democratic House of Representatives may pass.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2018, Congress, US Politics, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. mattbernius says:

    Couple thoughts:

    * First, this is not a surprise at all for historical and structural reasons.

    * However, if the margin holds to 8 points, it’s a further suggestion of overall Republican weakness. Trump won the state by 18 points just two years ago. A ten point drop here is pretty incredible — though that drop could also be in part due to all the candidate’s self-inflicted wounds.

    * Her approximate margin of victory was ~68,470 votes. It’s worth again noting that thanks to Mississippi’s extreme disenfranchisement laws 127,130 African Americans* can no longer vote due to having a felony conviction (approximately 58% of disenfranchisements within the state and 16% of the African American population of the state). I’m not suggesting that, if they could vote, all of those folks would have turned out and voted against her, but it’s again worth noting how voting laws (not to mention hold-over racist reconstruction laws) can influence elections.

    Sources:
    * http://www.jacksonfreepress.com/news/2016/oct/19/mississippi-stop-disenfranchising-black-voters/
    * https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/11/mike-espys-uphill-battle-senate-mississippi/576676/

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  2. @mattbernius:

    As I said, in the post I am usually reluctant to draw conclusions from Special Elections because they typically have such different turnout from what you can expect in a General Election. Additionally, I think that Espy (who is unlikely to run again in 2020) was probably the best positioned Democrat for this election.

    Just as I think that Doug Jones will face an uphill battle in winning a full term in Alabama in 2020, I think that Democrats will find it hard to do as well as Espy did in two years when the seat comes back up for re-election.

  3. mattbernius says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    Agree on most points Doug.

    I’ve been interviewing government and advocate types from Mississippi and it’s hard to understate how conservative the state is. Heck, even the liberals there are super conservative.

    Espy was probably the best position Democrat possible. And it’s worth noting that he did a bit better in the special election than he did in the general (either due to mobilization or his opponents “missteps”). I still think it’s important to discuss how Mississippi’s laws still limit how well he could do.

    He might run again (Mississippi politicians have a habit of doing that).

    And yes, so long as the Alabama Republican party can avoid nominating someone like Roy Moore again, Jones most likely won’t hold his seat.

    That said, I think that, pulling out and looking across special elections, there are definitely patterns that can be seen. This was yet another example of Democrats over-performing in elections since Trump won office. Yes, the Republicans won, but the fact that it was still this close makes this more of a “sigh of relief” win than a “fists punching in the air, 2020 is going to be a breeze for us” win.

  4. mattBernius says:

    Last post… I think this analysis from the Weekly Standard about the election and it’s implications for the President is a good companion read:

    https://www.weeklystandard.com/david-byler/three-takeaways-from-mississippis-senate-special-election

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    So my little bit crazy, little bit daffy, little bit racist, and wholly tone deaf, Aunt Kathy is going to DC. Even Texas knew better than to send her to DC during the ’60s.

  6. Teve says:

    neat comment i saw yesterday: “If you want to know how big a blue wave it was, Democrats are pissed they lost an election in Mississippi.”

  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    Breaking News: Mississippi still racist as hell.

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  8. Teve says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I generally hold that South Carolina is the worst state in the union, but I’m open to considering others.

  9. Teve says:

    Despite being 37% African American, Mississippi has a record of 51 consecutive white Senators.

    This is Teve’s complete lack of surprise.

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  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Resistance Ron: Hey, credit where credit is due. It is highly unlikely she was a serial predator stalking the halls of family court in search of vulnerable underage girls with daddy issues, so good on Mississippi GOP! You’re not Alabama GOP.

  11. James Pearce says:

    the Republican majority in the Senate now stands at 53-47, a net gain of two seats from where the body stood prior to Election Day.

    Flake, Corker, and McCain are gone. Some of the Dem 47 are eyeing their presidential runs and at least one of them is basically a Republican.

    People can call it a blue wave election if they want, but in the Senate at least, Trump has been bolstered…big time.

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  12. mattbernius says:

    @James Pearce:

    in the Senate at least, Trump has been bolstered…big time.

    I agree 100% James. The Weekly Standard peice specifically spoke to that:

    But Trump is now in a much better position in the Senate. Some of the Senators who were most free to oppose him are gone. Flake and Corker are no longer in the Senate (though I don’t think that either of them fully used the freedom and leverage that retirement provided). Corker has been replaced by Marsha Blackburn, a Trump ally. Mitt Romney is entering the Senate as Flake leaves, but it’s not clear exactly how Romney will respond to Trump over the next two to six years. McCain is also gone, and it’s unclear what’s going to happen to Susan Collins in the 2020 cycle. Hyde-Smith’s win gives the GOP 53 seats. That means that the GOP can lose couple of votes (Collins and more) without losing the majority.

    Basically, beyond making it harder for the Dems to take control in 2020 (when the Republicans will be defending their vulnerable seats), this has effectively gutted the power of the liberal side of the Senate Republicans (which may also end up helping Collins’ election prospects as she can more easily break with the party without threatening legislation or judges).

  13. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Teve: Well, SC is represented in the Senate by a black man and had an Indian woman as Governor. Jus’ sayin’.

  14. Franklyn adams says:

    Carter won the state in 1976 as your link shows so please add a correction update.

  15. Teve says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Yeah, I solidified my dislike for SC like 15 years ago from an aggregate of data points about racial views, religiosity, education, poverty, etc. I’m sure the calculation wouldn’t be exactly the same today.

    Tell the truth, it was probly highly influenced by a roommate i had from SC who happily told me about how in his hometown (I can’t remember if it was Columbia or Charleston) blacks still knew their place and weren’t on the wrong wide of the tracks come sundown. But it was also influenced by a couple i knew in north florida who briefly lived in SC and said under no circumstances would they move back.

  16. al Ameda says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    @Teve:

    @Michael Reynolds: I generally hold that South Carolina is the worst state in the union, but I’m open to considering others.

    A while ago I saw a list of ‘alternative’ state mottos: the one for Alabama was
    “Thank God for Mississippi”

  17. @mattbernius:

    Democrats have had more success running for Governor than Federal office in Mississippi. If Espy were to run again perhaps that might be a better fit for him.

  18. @Franklyn adams:

    As you say I did link to the Carter victory but I have also amended the relevant sentence to make the point clearer.

  19. MarkedMan says:

    @mattbernius: Great points. Building off of something you said

    though that drop could also be in part due to all the candidate’s self-inflicted wounds

    I think by this point this is the norm. The Republicans simply aren’t going to have many quality candidates outside of a few places like Utah. In the Deep South you have to prove your racist bona fides and demonstrate every day in every way that you are pro-Confederate flag, anti-abortion, anti-EPA, anti-healthcare, and on and on. You need to at least convincingly pretend that you don’t believe in climate change, that the government shouldn’t be involved in promoting the general health and welfare. Basically you have to embrace the stupid with religious zeal. And even after that, at any moment the head of your party could sabotage your entire career with a tweet. So you get your Roy Moores and your Hyde-Smiths and a bunch of other third and fourth raters. Quality people are either biding their time, getting out of politics or joining the Dems.

  20. Tyrell says:

    @MarkedMan: These days “racist” is being thrown around rather loosely, often to people and views they disagree with.
    This Hyde – Smith lady used to be a Democrat then switched. That right there would cost her my vote if I lived in Mississippi. She should have stayed in and worked to move the party toward common sense, centrist views and away from the leftist socialism direction it has taken. There are still plenty of Democrats around down here who wait for the day when the party returns to its great traditions.

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  21. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Tyrell:

    These days “racist” is being thrown around rather loosely, often to people and views they disagree with.

    Bull. The reason it’s being ‘thrown around” is that your people, Tyrell, the Trump Cult, have ended the usual Republican dogwhistle racism and replaced it with screeching, grunting, bellowing racism.

    You outed yourselves as racists. You don’t want to be called racist, don’t be racist. And voting for a racist yes, does mean you’re a racist.

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  22. James Pearce says:

    @mattbernius:

    beyond making it harder for the Dems to take control in 2020…this has effectively gutted the power of the liberal side of the Senate Republicans

    Neither of those sound like desirable outcomes to me…

    @MarkedMan:

    Quality people are either biding their time, getting out of politics or joining the Dems.

    I’ve seen a lot of the time biding and the getting out of politics, and while I hoped “joining the Dems” would be a thing, the Dems are making that incredibly difficult. The never-Trumpers want to help you take down Donald Trump. They’re not that big into the “Make Nancy Speaker Again” project.

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  23. mattbernius says:

    @James Pearce:

    Neither of those sound like desirable outcomes to me…

    Did I suggest that they were? I thought I was agreeing with you that this (and the other Senate wins) bolstered Trump’s position.

  24. James Pearce says:

    @mattbernius:

    I thought I was agreeing with you that this (and the other Senate wins) bolstered Trump’s position.

    We agree on that, and we apparently agree that it sucks. There is no quarrel on that.

  25. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @mattbernius:

    this has effectively gutted the power of the liberal side of the Senate Republicans

    The Republicans gutted the liberal (RINO) side of their party. Flake and Corker decided against running for re-election because they knew they would get primaried by the trumpist right and that they could not win those primaries. If Flake had somehow survived the primary he would have almost without a doubt won the general.

  26. just nutha says:

    “The reason we won is because Mississippians know me and they know my heart,” And share your desire for front row seats at lynchings hangings and to send their kids to the wame segregated private academy you and your daughter attended. We get this.

    “But the margin in Mississippi, as well as the results of last year’s special Senate election in Alabama, suggest that inelastic states aren more elastic than we might think. (…) Moreover, changes in turnout can also move the needle. I’ll need to analyze the data from Mississippi more before coming to firm conclusions about exactly what happened there, but it’s worth noting that Doug Jones won in Alabama partially because turnout was weak among Trumpian Republicans and strong among African-Americans.” Which may turn out to make voter suppression even more important in the future than it is at present. (It’s a good thing that voter suppression is all in the minds of the voters, as some of our fellows here have noted.)

    @James Pearce: Meh,,, just your imagination running wild. Any shortfalls in power will be able to be made up by Democratic Senators simply refusing to allow the GOP to pass legislation with the same force of will that gets you to the polls. If you can vote, they can take control. Easy peasy.

  27. Gustopher says:

    Making The Confederacy Great Again!

  28. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @Teve: I’m pleased to see how open-minded you are. Apparently based on a few secondhand accounts and some data aggregations, you’ve decided we’re the worst place in the nation. Your depth of research is impressive. For the record, I’ve often been critical of SC’s political and business leadership, but I don’t judge an entire state by what others say. For those states of which I have firsthand knowledge, that’s another matter.

  29. James Pearce says:

    @just nutha:

    Any shortfalls in power will be able to be made up by Democratic Senators simply refusing to allow the GOP to pass legislation with the same force of will that gets you to the polls.

    Legislation? I’m not worried about our legislators legislating, often just a part time, last minute activity for those villains.

    I’m worried about confirmation battles.

  30. Teve says:

    @SC_Birdflyte: dude I live in Florida. I don’t equate everybody in the state with the state as a whole. Otherwise I’d consider myself a demented meth-head who swims with Gators and wears a shirt infrequently. And I’m totally not like that. Anymore.

  31. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @James Pearce: Same-same. The only problems are lack of resolve and social justice warfare. I have it on good authority.