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Mississippi Voters Could Make History in Yet Another Race About Race

Democrat Mike Espy could defeat Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith in what has suddenly become the latest Southern election with national implications

Mike Espy and Cindy Hyde-Smith

Mike Espy and Cindy Hyde-Smith

Rogelio V Solis/AP/REX Shutterstock, Chris Todd/EPA-EFE/REX Shutterstock

Who knew Cindy Hyde-Smith was such a comedian? The Republican senator from Mississippi, appointed in March to replace the ancient and ailing Thad Cochran, has been on quite a roll in the run-up to next Tuesday’s runoff election against Mike Espy, who was the state’s first black congressman since Reconstruction before serving in Bill Clinton’s cabinet.

At a campaign event earlier this month, Hyde-Smith chose the following quip to praise the cattle rancher who’d introduced her to the assembled white folk: “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” The next day, campaigning at Mississippi State, a student asked her about voter suppression. “There’s a lot of liberal folks in those other schools that maybe we don’t want to vote,” she said. “Maybe we just want to make it a little more difficult. And I think that’s a great idea.”

The “public hanging” remark, Hyde-Smith said in a statement, was merely a common “expression of exaggerated regard.” Espy was among the many Mississippians, white and black, who were puzzled by this: “I thought I’d heard every kind of Southern colloquialism ever uttered, but I’ve never heard anything about any sort of public hanging.” One thing everybody in Mississippi does know, though, is that “public hangings” were euphemisms for lynchings — and according to the NAACP, more blacks were lynched in this state than in any other.

But come on, y’all: Lighten up! “It’s OK to still have a sense of humor in America isn’t it?” Hyde-Smith’s twitter account begged after the damning video clips were released last week by a Louisiana blogger. The campaign’s tweet depicted the senator in a light moment with students at Mississippi State, saying they’d “enjoyed a laugh with Cindy despite out-of-state social media posts trying to mislead Mississippians.”

But the video shows nobody laughing at her voter-suppression “joke.” And the black student in the photo, far from amused, demanded the photo be taken down. “I am disgusted,” wrote J.R. Coleman, who said he’d come out to hear the senator because he’s a political-science major, not because he supports her. “She is trying to show herself in a different light by using this photo of me. We were not laughing in regards to her terrible statements.”

By this point, nobody was laughing — Republicans included. (On Tuesday, Walmart withdrew its support for Hyde-Smith and asked for its donation back, followed by Union Pacific.) While she’s running against a well-qualified black candidate in the state with the nation’s highest percentage of black voters (35 percent), Hyde-Smith — who was the state agriculture secretary before Gov. Phil Bryant sent her to Washington — had looked to be on a glide path to victory after November 6th, when she fended off a farther-right Republican to advance to the November 27th runoff. Even though the ascendant progressive movement in the Deep South, which lifted Doug Jones to victory over Roy Moore in Alabama last December and fueled near-victories for Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum earlier this month, has been on the ground in Mississippi for months, it seemed likely that Espy was also doomed to fall short. Mississippi Democrats had simply been too far down, for way too long, to pull off a statewide win of such magnitude.

All the Republican candidate had to do, really, was heed a version of Espy’s own campaign mantra, from his first campaign for Congress in 1986: “You must excite your black voters and not incite your white voters.” As long as Hyde-Smith avoided “inciting” black voters to turn out in record numbers, she was almost surely headed back to Washington. But she couldn’t contain herself, and now Republicans are scrambling to send money and campaign reinforcements while shaking their heads at the inability of their candidates steer clear of racial rhetoric.

“If Republicans want to quit being accused of being racist,” GOP operative Amanda Carpenter said on CNN this past weekend, “they need to stop saying racist things.” But that’s proven to be a particular challenge in the age of Trump, when eager imitators like Ron “Monkey This Up” DeSantis and Hyde-Smith discover that the president is the only one who gets off scot-free with repulsive bigotry.

Having kicked the hornets’ nest, Hyde-Smith’s obvious next move was to issue a sincere apology. Instead, when her campaign sought to do damage control last week, scheduling a hasty press conference with Gov. Bryant after the videos came out, things just got worse. While Hyde-Smith stood by tight-lipped, refusing to say anything more than “we’ve released a statement,” the governor went off on a wild tangent about how black women are participating in “the genocide of 20 million African American children” by getting abortions. “Nobody wants to say anything about that,” Bryant said. “No one wants to talk about that.” But the “cold, grim truth is, children are being murdered.”

It was a rather odd way to defuse a racial controversy, since people are typically not known to appreciate being called mass-murderers. “Everything is not about race,” Bryant insisted, though he’d just demonstrated the opposite. And soon enough, Mississippi voters were being told about Hyde-Smith’s attempt, while she served in the state legislature, to rename a local highway after Jefferson Davis. And about how she’d recently stressed the importance of electing Republicans by warning another all-white crowd, “You’re going to have Maxine Waters trying to impeach our president.”

Hyde-Smith gets another chance to explain herself tonight, in the first and only debate she’s agreed to. As the Jackson Free Press reports, the senator demanded that the press would be banned from the debate—and that no audience be allowed, ether.

She’ll also have to explain this photo that lit up the Twittersphere Tuesday morning:

But black voters don’t need to hear another peep from the senator to know what they need to know. And if they show up in massive numbers, Espy will only need to win a few more white votes than he got on November 6th — 21 percent — to score the upset of the year in the final midterm election.

Unlike Abrams or Gillum, Espy’s a far cry from a progressive firebrand. Even the younger version of Espy, the rising Democratic star of the ‘80s and ‘90s, was a low-key, soft-spoken moderate — the lone black politician who helped create the conservative Democratic Leadership Conference with Bill Clinton, building a force that moved the party to the right nationally. After his track to higher office was derailed by a pay-for-play scandal when he was Clinton’s Agriculture Secretary, Espy — who ultimately was found not guilty on corruption charges — went back to practicing law in Mississippi, only breaking his political retirement to endorse a Republican for governor in 2007.

But when Cochran retired, Espy launched his long-expected comeback, as basically a white-haired version of his old political self. While his policy talk is a bit more progressive nowadays — he’s down with Medicaid expansion and limited forms of gun control, though he was once endorsed by the NRA — Espy has stuck by his old vow not to “incite white voters.” Though he denounced Hyde-Smith’s racist schtick, he wasn’t about to make a big issue of it on the campaign trail. “We may have all come over here on different ships,” he said this past weekend, “But we’re all here now. Yes, there are race issues in Mississippi, can’t sweep those under the rug. But I don’t want to dwell on that. I want to be the senator of everyone.”

Espy needed help to kindle enthusiasm among African Americans, to overcome their understandable skepticism that a black candidate, no matter how white-friendly, could ever win statewide in a marquee race like this. Now that Hyde-Smith has sparked the blaze, Espy has a real shot at the kind of historic breakthrough that eluded Gillum and Abrams in Florida and Georgia. While he’s still the same doggedly bland campaigner, Espy made a close study of Doug Jones’ victory last December in Alabama’s Senate runoff — and from the start of his own bid, he’s embraced the activists who made it happen. At the opening of his state headquarters in August, he was introduced by Black Voters Matter co-founder LaTosha Brown, who vowed to lead a turnout “in record numbers,” just as she helped to do in Alabama. (“If it were not for LaTosha Brown, Doug Jones would not be in the Senate today,” Espy said, speaking truth.) He hired Joe Trippi, the Democratic consultant who steered Jones to victory, to run his own campaign. As Espy recently told a group of women of color, “What you did for Doug Jones in Alabama, you’ve got to do for me in Mississippi, you know what I’m saying?”

The dynamics of the two races are strikingly similar. Jones, who is white, ran like Espy as a centrist with civil-rights bona fides — in his case, from prosecuting civil-rights crimes as a U.S. attorney. And while Hyde-Smith doesn’t have Moore’s most glaring image problem — she’s never been accused of stalking and assaulting teenage girls — it wasn’t those allegations that sealed the Alabama Republican’s doom. The unprecedented turnout of black voters was motivated just as much by Moore’s long pattern of saying racist things, including his eye-opening statement during the campaign that America had last achieved greatness when “we had slavery.”

Now that Hyde-Smith has done her part to fire up black voters, there’s a fair-to-middling chance of another unforseen Democratic triumph in the Deep South next week. If Espy pulls it off, delicious ironies will abound. Runoffs have traditionally worked against black candidates, who can win multi-candidate races but have trouble garnering enough white votes to prevail one-on-one against a white conservative. “Historically in the South, runoffs were used as a two-shot opportunity to disenfranchise black people from winning elections,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, who holds Espy’s old seat in Congress. This time, it could be the way the Mississippi elects its first black senator in 141 years.

That mind-bending outcome would also serve as another rebuke to President Trump, whose image adorns the side of Hyde-Smith’s campaign bus. The White House announced Monday that he’ll be stumping for the senator on Election Eve in Biloxi and Tupelo — just as he did last year for Moore, the same week that Republicans managed to lose a Senate seat in Alabama.

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