Democrats had hoped to turn Mississippi Republican Senate candidate Cindy Hyde-Smith into the Magnolia State’s Roy Moore, who infamously lost a Senate election in deeply conservative Alabama last year after accusations of sexual misconduct.
Hyde-Smith ultimately won her run-off election Tuesday night, but thanks to an unusual constellation of circumstances, the idea that her Democratic opponent, Mike Espy, could take home a win in a blood-red state wasn’t crazy. Hyde-Smith failed to capture more than 50 percent of the vote on midterm Election Day, which triggered a runoff. Then, in mid-November, Hyde-Smith, who’s white, offered bizarre praise to a supporter by saying, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row.”
Making light of lynchings, especially in a state that once lynched more African-Americans than any other state in the country, doesn’t tend to go over well. In the weeks since, Democrats jumped on the possibility of another victory in a deeply conservative Southern state. Espy, who’s black, sought to increase turnout among black voters, who were essential to Democrat Doug Jones’ victory over Moore in Alabama. (Espy and Jones even shared at least one campaign staffer, according to the Associated Press.)
Democrats’ hopes, however, were squashed when Espy lost to Hyde-Smith 54 percent to 46 percent Tuesday night. Some key differences between Moore and Hyde-Smith kept Espy from replicating Jones’ success.
Hyde-Smith wasn’t accused of pedophilia.
Hyde-Smith eventually apologized for her “public hanging” comment, but it turns out that she has a history of lauding Mississippi’s racist past: While in the state legislature, she championed two legislative measures that would have commemorated the Confederacy, and once captioned photos of Confederate artifacts with the words, “Mississippi history at its best!" Those choices clearly didn’t hurt her ascension to the heights of Mississippi politics.
Moore, however, was accused of initiating a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old when he was in his 30s. Another three women also said a 30-something Moore tried to date them when they were teenagers. While Moore declined the claims — and ended up suing over them — he was already fighting an uphill battle to win skeptical Alabamians’ votes.
Moore was initially more unpopular than Hyde-Smith.
Before the allegations against him, Moore won his 2012 statewide race for the state Supreme Court by a relatively narrow margin and secured about 52 percent of the vote. Hyde-Smith, on the other hand, won her 2015 re-election for state commissioner of agriculture and commerce with 61 percent of the vote, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Moore was also kicked off the state Supreme Court bench — twice. He was first ousted for installing a granite monument of the 10 Commandments in the Supreme Court building and then refusing to remove it. Once he won re-election to bench, Moore was suspended for defying federal law by ordering probate judges to not issue marriage licenses for same-sex marriages.
It’s a different time in the presidency.
President Donald Trump, who remains immensely popular in Mississippi and took the state by about 17 percent points in 2016, held multiple rallies for Hyde-Smith in the last few weeks. While Trump did support Moore, his approval ratings were lower at the time: When Moore lost, in December 2017, his approval was hovering in the high 30s; now, they’re in the low 40s.
While Trump tweeted about Moore, he did not campaign for Moore within the state. (He did mention Moore at a rally in Florida, near the Alabama border.) After Moore’s loss, Trump also backtracked on his support. “I wasn’t happy with Roy Moore, let’s get that straight,” the president told reporters. But, Trump added, Moore was a Republican at the end of the day. “And I would have rather had a Republican candidate win.”
Espy came surprisingly close to winning.
Espy faced some stiff obstacles: Not only has the state not had a Democratic senator since 1989, it also hasn’t had an African-American senator since Reconstruction. But Hyde-Smith beat Espy with a lead of just 8 points, far lower than Trump’s lead in the state in 2016.
Hyde-Smith also failed to swoop up the votes she’d lost during her initial election, when Hyde-Smith took home 41.5 percent of the vote and fellow Republican Chris McDaniel about 16.5 percent. Since McDaniel didn’t make the runoff, Hyde-Smith was expected to pick up McDaniel’s share of the vote and win with 58 percent of the vote. Instead, she fell short of that by about 4 percentage points.
Cover image: This combination photo shows Mike Espy, left, a former congressman and former U.S. agriculture secretary, on Oct. 5, 2018, and U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., on Nov. 5, 2018, both in Jackson, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)