On November 3, for the second time in as many years, Mississippi’s Cindy Hyde-Smith will seek to defend her U.S. Senate seat from Democrat Mike Espy. Now, as then, race plays a key role in the race.
Republican Hyde-Smith was appointed to the office by Governor Phil Bryant in early 2018 after Thad Cochran resigned the position, and faced Espy in a special election that November. At one point, Hyde-Smith was all but guaranteed a landslide victory, but her problematic racial views and history kept getting in the way. As a child, she attended an all-white segregation academy that was specifically designed to skate around racial integration in schools. We would be wrong to judge Senator Hyde-Smith for the decisions of her parents, but she sent her own daughter to a similar academy. As a member of Mississippi’s state legislature, she cosponsored a resolution to praise a deceased Confederate soldier as someone who “fought to defend his homeland,” and proposed naming a state highway after Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States. In 2014, she posted to social media a picture of herself donning a Confederate cap in the home of Jefferson Davis with the caption, “Mississippi history at its best.” To be clear, participating in a war that cost more than one million American lives in order to preserve the right to treat human beings as property is Mississippi history at its very worst. Two years later, Hyde-Smith chose a group called Dixie Alliance, staunch defenders of the Confederacy, to receive a community award. Perhaps most troubling of all, while campaigning against Espy, who is Black, Hyde-Smith joked about lynchings, an act that Mississippi led the nation in when the practice was prevalent.
Any one of the above incidents could be written off as poor judgment. Taken together, however, they paint a picture of a privileged white woman who, at best, doesn’t care about the struggles of Black Mississippians, and, at worst, is the archetypal backwoods racist.
That’s why, for many progressive Mississippians, watching Hyde-Smith defeat Espy by nearly eight points in their 2018 run-off was so heartbreaking. A year earlier, we had seen Alabama choose Doug Jones over the controversy-ridden Republican Roy Moore for the United States Senate. For a moment, there was hope that Mississippi could follow suit; and then, the moment passed.
Now, in the wake of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and more, racism is in the spotlight as Hyde-Smith and Espy face off again, and Hyde-Smith’s skeletons haven’t left her closet. In fact, she’s now in active opposition to the removal of statues of white supremacist Confederate leaders from the United States Capitol.
And her record outside the issue of race isn’t much better. While campaigning in 2018, she said that it would be “a great idea” to suppress the vote of liberal college students. She claims that the Affordable Care Act “has failed Mississippi,” and wants to repeal it; as we have written before, ACA has been an overwhelming success overall, and could be a lifeline to tens of thousands of Mississippians if the state legislators would vote to enact its Medicaid expansion program. As recently as 2012, Hyde-Smith expressed opposition to same-sex marriage. She tries to position herself as a fiscal conservative, but has been an enthusiastic supporter of the Trump wall, which has already cost taxpayers $11 billion, with very little to show for it. Her opponent has rightly labeled her a sycophant for Donald Trump.
Mike Espy brings a very different resume to the table. In the 1980s, he became the first African-American elected to represent Mississippi in the United States House of Representatives since Reconstruction, and now hopes to become the first Black United States Senator from Mississippi since Reconstruction. As a congressman, he developed a reputation for being willing to work across party lines for the benefit of rural Mississippians, and later served as the nation’s first Black Secretary of Agriculture. He’s now making rural healthcare his top campaign issue.
Though running as a Democrat, Espy is about as bipartisan as politicians come; he even endorsed Republican Governor Haley Barbour for re-election in 2007. He skews liberal on social issues, but also advocates for cutting the federal budget and protecting Mississippi’s most vital industries. While that may not be the most appealing trait for a candidate to the most liberal of Mississippi voters, it’s necessary. Bipartisanship is always a best-case scenario, especially in southern states. Bipartisan politicians are willing to work for their constituency, rather than their parties. To see that in action, look no further than Doug Jones.
Recent internal polling released by the Espy campaign shows Hyde-Smith leading by five points, while Hyde-Smith’s own internal polling shows her leading by twenty points. The reality is almost certainly somewhere in the middle. No matter what, though, Espy cannot win without overwhelming voter turnout.
Espy clearly identifies himself as a member of the New South. As he said at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, “I’m running against the Old Mississippi.”
And he’s right. Call him a populist if you’d like, given his focus on poor, rural Mississippians. I call him exactly what Mississippi needs right now. We can’t afford six more years of Cindy Hyde-Smith’s regressive politics.