Mississippi’s Senate runoff candidates both acknowledged in their own way in Tuesday night’s debate that the state is one of the nation’s most conservative, while also defending themselves over past actions.
Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith’s first comments reminded voters that President Trump would be in Mississippi on Monday “to campaign on my behalf,” while her Democratic opponent Mike Espy insisted he would be not be beholden to the party’s liberal leadership in Washington.
In her opening statement, Ms. Hyde-Smith rattled off a list of things she supports — “lower taxes, less regulation, support our veterans, protect unborn children” — that she said proved “I will stand up and protect your core conservative values.”
Though not on the defensive, Mr. Espy tried to distance himself from several of the positions his party would like to enact or leans toward. He does not support open borders, is not a fan of single-payer health care, and owns pistols and shotguns, he said.
But Ms. Hyde-Smith tried to puncture Mr. Espy’s self-portrait. She would be the superior defender of the Second Amendment, she said, and she would prefer to see Obamacare eradicated rather than shored up with more massive infusions of taxpayer cash, she said.
“He is nothing of a moderate,” she said, following up on her early claim listeners would hear “750,000 reasons why my opponent is too liberal for Mississippi.”
In his opening remarks, Mr. Espy said he was, “Mississippi over party, Mississippi over person, and I’m not going to let anyone in the federal government run over you.”
But, Ms. Hyde-Smith insisted, he would be a reliable vote for Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and other top Democrats.
“If he is elected, he will vote with Chuck Schumer 100 percent of the time,” she said.
Perhaps the only item on which the candidates appeared to agree was on the notion that people with pre-existing conditions must be included in all health care legislation, although Mr. Espy worked hard to depict himself as a more-sure supporter of that popular element of Obamacare.
The candidates’ only debate came against a backdrop of outside influence, along with Ms. Hyde-Smith’s recent controversial comments and Mr. Espy’s past lobbying for an African dictator.
The outside factors have been in the form of money, primarily for Mr. Espy who has garnered contributions from some of the same Hollywood-New York left-wingers who backed Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke in his losing bid against unseating Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
But figures from outside Mississippi are also playing a role.
Mr. Trump, who spoke approvingly of Ms. Hyde-Smith on Tuesday, is planning at least two rallies in the state on Nov. 26, the day before the runoff, while Mr. Espy has already benefited from stump appearances in Mississippi by Democratic senators and presumed 2020 presidential hopefuls Kamala D. Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Ms. Hyde-Smith’s missteps, on the other hand, have come right at home. The first involved an appearance in front of a small group of supporters in Tupelo where, accepting an invitation from a backer to speak at a later date, she said she would accept an invitation from him to “a public hanging.” The second came at Mississippi State University where she joked about suppressing the liberal voting blocs on other college campuses.
The remarks also cost her money. Led by Walmart, three corporations whose PACs had contributed to Ms. Hyde-Smith’s campaign announced they would seek the contributions’ return. The Walmart contribution was reportedly for $2,000, and it’s unclear how much was donated by the other two companies who have requested refunds thus far, railroad giant Union Pacific and medical device makers Boston Scientific.
The topic came up about 15 minutes into the debate, and Ms. Hyde-Smith offered her first apology for them while insisting her words had been twisted into a false narrative about racism that belies her record of helping all constituents regardless of race or creed.
“For anyone who was offended, I certainly apologize,” she said. “There was no ill will whatsoever in my comments.”
Mr. Espy said it was hard to argue a comment was twisted when it was on video.
“I don’t know what’s in your heart but I know what came out of your mouth,” he said. “It gives Mississippi another black eye.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Espy quickly dismissed a question about his taking gifts when he was agriculture secretary for the Clinton administration, criminal charges on which he was eventually acquitted.
On the other hand, on more than one occasion in the debate Mr. Espy was forced to address his lobbying on behalf of Laurent Gbagbo, the former dictator of the Ivory Coast currently standing trial in the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity.
At one point, Mr. Espy sidestepped a question about whether he was willing to donate the $750,000 he was paid to a charity benefiting poverty-stricken African nations, including the Ivory Coast’s cocoa industry, though it served as a mouthpiece for Mr. Gbagbo who claimed an election he lost had been stolen.
Mr. Espy earlier claimed he never took the full contract amount and terminated it when the nature of Mr. Gbagbo’s regime became clear to him, although federal documents in 2011 appear to indicate Mr. Espy was paid the full $750,000 and only ended the arrangement days before it expired.
Analysts have predicted a small turnout, given that the partisan balance of the Senate does not hinge on the outcome and the runoff comes right after the Thanksgiving holiday. Nevertheless, should the state’s Republican base turn out, Ms. Hyde-Smith would presumably win easily.
Her margin will be more comfortable if she is able to lure all those who voted for the third-place candidate on Nov. 6 into her column. Although Ms. Hyde-Smith defeated Mr. Espy by just one percentage point (41-40), more than 16 percent of the vote went to former state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Republican who is something of a right-wing firebrand even in the deeply conservative Magnolia State.
Mr. McDaniel has endorsed Ms. Hyde-Smith in the runoff, saying he think her the better person to help Mr. Trump and his agenda in Washington.
• James Varney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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