The 2018 election officially ends today as Mississippi voters head to the polls to choose between Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) and former Rep. Mike Espy (D). Hyde-Smith is considered the favorite in the runoff due to the clear Republican lean of the Magnolia State but her campaign has drawn a series of negative headlines over the past few weeks, headlines that have injected race into the, well, race.
To get a sense of the lay of the land of the last Senate election of 2018, I reached out to Sam R. Hall, who is the executive editor of the Clarion Ledger, the largest paper in Mississippi.
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Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: It's Election Day in Mississippi. Which side feels better -- and why?
Hall: Hyde-Smith. She's had a rough three weeks -- largely self-inflicted -- but I think most of it turns out to be political flesh wounds.
Mississippi is still heavily and reliably Republican. Gov. Phil Bryant and President Donald Trump are immensely popular; the rallies Monday will be a huge boost for her. And Hyde-Smith's campaign has been relentless with political attack ads against Espy for three solid weeks.
Espy has garnered a lot more attention because of Hyde-Smith's screw-ups, but I don't think it is anywhere near enough for him to win. If he gets within 10 points, then that would be a monumental voting shift and point toward Hyde-Smith possibly having a serious primary challenger in 2020.
Cillizza: Cindy Hyde-Smith has drawn LOTS of negative national headlines over the past month. What's the reaction been like in Mississippi?
Hall: Almost universally partisan. While there have been a number of Republicans who privately admit she's made major missteps, few think it's going to cost her the race.
The most diverse opinions seem to center around the hanging comment. There are diehard supporters who believe it was nothing more than a turn of phrase, that she meant nothing by it and that Democrats and the "liberal media" are just making much out of nothing. Other supporters -- and most GOP politicos with whom I've spoken -- tend to agree with much of that sentiment but also acknowledge that a) it was a stupid thing to say and b) that the response was grossly mishandled, which led to the firestorm that has engulfed her.
Whoever told her she should steadfastly refuse to apologize and stubbornly point back to her initial statement should never be allowed near another campaign. The only thing that would have been worse for her campaign would have been to say, "Yeah, I said it, and I meant it." By letting it continue on, it gave more and more credence to every misstep or questionable issue from her past -- especially to the national media.
Democrats and Espy supporters seemed more shocked at the way she handled it than what she actually said. They couldn't believe that she allowed it to get so far away from her. As more questionable pieces came out, they continued to follow a narrative of an old school, Deep South Republican politician with racist world views running against a moderate African-American Democrat with a history of crossing party lines. It was a godsend for them and the kind of narrative they were honestly expecting had [former state senator] Chris McDaniel made the runoff, not Hyde-Smith.
But, overall, this is Mississippi. Everyone here -- Republican, Democrat and other -- are desensitized to a degree about racial issues from someone's past. We still have the Confederate emblem on our state flag, despite the business community and a growing number of politicians from both parties saying it should be changed (including Sen. Roger Wicker.) It's going to take more than an off-the-cuff comment and a photo at a museum to move large swaths of the electorate.
I'd be remiss not to point out that Hyde-Smith doesn't have a history of racial divisiveness in her political life. There are a lot of people -- Republicans and Democrats -- who believe she may not have been ready for the national spotlight that came with this campaign, but they don't believe she is a bigoted racist, especially considering some of the elected officials and politicians who consistently say and embrace far worse things.
Cillizza: Trump was initially skeptical of Hyde-Smith as an appointed senator. He's now all in for her -- including two rallies in the state on Monday. What changed?
Hall: Gov. Phil Bryant. He and the President have forged an interesting relationship. The governor was the only one who was going to persuade the President and his staff that Hyde-Smith was the candidate they needed. McDaniel is clearly more in line with the President's brand, but he sealed his fate in 2014 when he continued to challenge his defeat to Sen. Thad Cochran and refused to ever concede that race. There was real political animosity between McDaniel and state GOP leaders, including Bryant.
Too, the Alabama [Senate] race scared a lot of people, and Republicans here feared a repeat of that race if McDaniel was in a runoff against a credible Democrat like Espy. That was likely a big selling point.
Finally, it didn't hurt that Hyde-Smith was with Trump from the beginning. Had she not been, who knows what would have happened.
Cillizza: Espy avoided highlighting some of Hyde-Smith's potential negatives -- the public hanging comment, segregated schools etc. -- during their debate. What explains his strategy?
Hall: He did highlight the public hanging comment. His most memorable line (and, honestly, there weren't many) was when he went after her for a very late apology she read from notes: "I don't know what's in your heart, but we all know what came out of your mouth."
But past that, I don't think he felt like carrying the water on that attack was in his best interest, and he was probably correct. He didn't go after her as hard on racial issues as some of his supporters would have liked, but that was an extremely tricky line for him to walk. To win this race, he has to have sizable white support. If he had gone with a full-throated offensive on race-related issues, he potentially could have lost moderate whites who thought her comment was dumb and her response petty but still weren't convinced that she meant anything racist by it. He probably didn't want to be painted as a black candidate playing the race card, especially while running on a message of working with everyone regardless of race or partisan leanings. (And to his credit, he has a history of doing those things.)
As for the segregated schools issue, that had not come up yet -- or at least wasn't widespread. I suspect he would have approached it much the same way for the same reasons. Too, this issue is not clear-cut, either. Yes, there are a lot of private schools that were started as segregation academies, and some of them still exist today. However, you'd be hard-pressed to say that they all still exist solely -- and in some (many?) cases -- for the same reason. Then there is the fact that Espy sent his children to a private school, too. Granted, his children went to an Episcopalian private school that did not have the same racial history, but try explaining that to voters in a 15-second soundbite in a debate or making voters care that there is a difference.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: "If Cindy Hyde-Smith wins by a comfortable margin, the lesson is _____________." Now explain.
Hall: "Unclear and complicated."
The easy -- and lazy -- assumption would be that nothing has changed, that Mississippi still embraces a racist heritage. Yes, there is still a sizable portion of our electorate who do just that, but I sincerely believe they are the minority. They may still be large enough to swing some elections, but they are in the minority and continue to dwindle. (Look at the number of people who continue to come out in favor of changing the state flag to see that it's changing. Look at those running for higher office who refuse to advocate for a new flag despite their largest financial backers doing so as evidence that the racist element of our electorate is still sizable enough to matter -- at least in GOP primaries.)
More importantly, however, is the fact that a number of people in Mississippi -- on both ends of the political spectrum -- believe the national political parties and national media got carried away. Saying you would be on the front row of a public hanging may be disturbing -- it is certainly not very smart for someone running for office, especially in Mississippi -- but it isn't automatically racist. Not admitting to how such a comment could be interpreted as having racial undertones and initially refusing to just apologize for anyone hurt by it and then move on was far dumber than saying it in the first place. But the political storm it set off drew clear lines in the sand that have held ever since.
At the end of the day, this race was essentially decided on November 6 when Hyde-Smith drummed McDaniel and ended up matching Espy's vote total. That should have been his ceiling -- 41% -- and the next three weeks should have been pretty mundane. Now he may surpass 41%, but to believe he is going to shoot up 10 percentage points is naive.
I said right after the debate Tuesday that I felt like the runoff results would be essentially what everyone expected after the runoff was set: essentially a 60-40 win for Hyde-Smith, give or take a couple of points. I also said I would be more shocked by a 10-point race than a 30-point or higher race. While I now would be more surprised by Hyde-Smith hitting 65%, I still don't think this race is that close. Espy getting to 45% would be a strong showing, though it would likely point more toward Hyde-Smith's weakness as a candidate than his strength.
All in all, don't be surprised to see a 60-40 race. For all the national attention, I don't think the needle has moved much here. This is a solidly Republican state, and for all her missteps and the very poor way she's handled the controversies, Hyde-Smith hasn't done anything that I see would cost her the race. And quite honestly, Espy hasn't really done anything that would convince a lot of people to switch to him. He's run a credible race, but just running a credible race isn't good enough for a Democrat in Mississippi. He's not done enough to motivate voters. You hear plenty of talk about voting against Hyde-Smith for various reasons, but you hear very little about voters inspired to go vote for Espy.