Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith defeated Democratic challenger Michel Espy in this week’s runoff election, becoming the first elected female Senator in the state’s history. Mr. Espy, a former Secretary of Agriculture during the Clinton Administration, hoped to lead a Democratic upset in Mississippi in the same fashion Doug Jones did in Alabama last year, but fell short by roughly 69,000 votes.
In the weeks running up to an otherwise sleepy run off, Hyde-Smith sparked national controversial remarks about public lynching, re-opening a painful wound in the state’s past with racial violence. In praising a supporter at the end of a campaign rally on November 2nd, Hyde-Smith said she would “fight a circular saw for him” and continued with “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” The gaffe was similar to those of previous Republican candidates who gave equally appalling statements, such as Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” remark in a 2012 Senate race against Claire McCaskill and George Allen in Virginia’s racial slur against an Indian-American in the same year’s Senate race against Tim Kaine.
In the lone debate with Espy, Hyde-Smith offered an apology “to anyone offended” by the public hanging remark and went on to say “My comments [did not] mean I would enjoy any type of capital punishment sitting there witnessing this. You know, for anyone that was offended by my comments, I certainly apologize. There was no ill will, no intent whatsoever in my statements.” At a press conference with Governor Phil Bryant, Hyde-Smith referred an earlier statement about the public hanging and told reporters at least six times that is “all I’m going to say about it.” In a CNN appearance, Espy commented that “This is 2018. We just should not have this. We need leaders who would try to unite us and not divide us.” President Donald Trump and Vice President Michael Pence both held rallies in support for Hyde-Smith in an effort to bolster support and prevent any perception of their distance from the Senator.
Hyde-Smith’s margin of victory by 68,585 votes equates to 7.8% and is the narrowest margin of victory for a Republic since 2008. In a 2008 special election, appointed Senator Roger Wicker defeated former Mississippi Governor Ronnie Musgrove by 123,345 votes or 10%. In every Senate election since 1984 and when Democrat John Stennis left office in January of 1989, Republicans have comfortably won both seats by an average margin of 36%. Additionally, in 1978’s Senate election, Republican Thad Cochran won a three way race between Democrat Maurice Dantin and Independent Charles Evers. Doubtless, Mr. Evers, a former Civil Rights activist, mayor, and brother to Medgar Evers, pulled votes away from “traditionally Democratic black voters,” but the race was an early indicator of the changing political tide of the south whereby conservative white voters would begin favoring Republicans over Democrats.
As of this writing, Espy has filed new paperwork with the Federal Election Commission seeking to challenge Hyde-Smith again in 2020.