Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith defeated Democrat Mike Espy on Tuesday in Mississippi’s fiercely contested U.S. Senate contest, one of the state’s most competitive races in decades.
Hyde-Smith led by 6.6 percentage points with 99% of precincts reporting late Tuesday. But it was an underwhelming victory for a Republican in this staunchly conservative state that has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1982.
The special election runoff became unexpectedly competitive after Hyde-Smith, a 59-year-old cattle rancher who was appointed to the Senate this year after Sen. Thad Cochran resigned for health reasons, drew mounting scrutiny for remarks that were criticized as racist or insensitive.
Shortly after the Nov. 6 election, a video emerged in which Hyde-Smith said that if a supporter invited her “to a public hanging,” she would be in “the front row,” words that dredged up the state’s painful legacy of violence against African Americans. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, more than 600 African Americans were lynched in Mississippi from 1877 to 1950, the most documented lynchings of any state in the nation.
In another recording from the campaign trail, Hyde-Smith told supporters that maybe it was a “great idea” to make it “just a little bit more difficult” for “liberal folks in those other schools” to vote. Some suspected she was referring to students of historically black colleges.
A photo also surfaced from Hyde-Smith’s Facebook page showing her posing with a Confederate cap and musket at the 2014 opening of a museum dedicated to Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America.
Hyde-Smith, who previously served as the Mississippi commissioner of agriculture and commerce and a Mississippi state senator, also drew criticism for her handling of the controversy, retreating from the campaign trail and refusing to talk to the media.
It was not until a televised debate with Espy last week that Hyde-Smith offered any semblance of an apology.
“For anyone that was offended by my comments, I certainly apologize,” she said, reading from a script. “There was no ill will, no intent whatsoever, in my statements.”
She then accused Democrats of twisting her comment about the hanging, turning it “into a weapon to be used against me, a political weapon used for nothing but personal and political gain.”
“I don’t know what’s in your heart, but we all know what came out of your mouth,” Espy replied.
As Hyde-Smith’s campaign faltered, Democrats hoped to replicate their success in Alabama last December, when Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore in a U.S. Senate special election. Moore, a former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, faced accusations from multiple women that he sexually assaulted or preyed upon them when they were teenagers.
As businesses including Walmart and Google asked Hyde-Smith to refund their campaign contributions, Espy claimed Hyde-Smith was “bad for business” and would only embarrass the state and reinforce negative stereotypes of Mississippi.
But many conservative voters across the state seemed not to be bothered by the controversies, questioning why they had elicited such national scrutiny.
To win, Espy, 64, a former congressman who served as U.S. agriculture secretary under President Clinton, needed to mobilize a large section of African Americans to the polls, as well as capture about 25% of the white vote.
Though Hyde-Smith did not do herself any favors, Espy fundamentally lacked the numbers, said Joseph Weinberg, associate professor of political science at the University of Southern Mississippi. Typically, he said, Republicans have an approximate 20-percentage-point lead over Democrats — a pattern born out in the 2016 presidential election when Trump won nearly 58% of the vote compared with Hillary Clinton’s 40%.
“This is an incredibly ‘red’ state, so it was always Cindy Hyde-Smith’s race to lose,” Weinberg said. “We haven't had an even nominally competitive federal race between a Democrat and Republican in some 10 or 15 years.”
Still, he said, “a closer finish means a more likely GOP challenge for this seat again in two years and maybe a rematch against Espy.”
In a statement conceding the race, Espy said: “Make no mistake — tonight is the beginning, not the end. When this many people show up, stand up and speak up, it is not a loss. It is a moment. It is a movement.”
Hyde-Smith’s win gives the Republicans 53 seats in the Senate to Democrats’ 47.