What To Know About Mississippi's Senate Runoff Election

Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democratic challenger Mike Espy face off Tuesday.

Voters in Mississippi head to the polls Tuesday for a Senate runoff election between Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democratic challenger Mike Espy. The final Senate seat up for grabs in this year’s midterm elections, the contest has drawn increased national attention due to a series of offensive comments from Hyde-Smith that hark back to the state’s racist history. If elected, Espy would become the state’s first black senator since Reconstruction.

The closer-than-expected race in a GOP stronghold has drawn comparisons to the Senate special election in Alabama last year, when Democrat Doug Jones pulled off a surprise victory against Republican Roy Moore, who had been accused of sexually assaulting or harassing nearly 10 girls and young women.

Here’s what else to know about Mississippi’s runoff election, whose winner will fill the seat vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Thad Cochran and held briefly through appointment by Hyde-Smith.

GOP Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democratic challenger Mike Espy face off in Tuesday's Mississippi Senate runoff.
GOP Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democratic challenger Mike Espy face off in Tuesday's Mississippi Senate runoff.

Why is there a runoff?

Hyde-Smith, appointed to Cochran’s seat when he retired earlier this year, and Espy, a former congressman and agriculture secretary under President Bill Clinton, were the top two finishers in the Nov. 6 special election.

But neither got enough votes to achieve an outright victory, sending the race to a runoff. Hyde-Smith, who would become the state’s first elected female senator, got 41.5 percent of the vote, and Espy got 40.6 percent.

What did Hyde-Smith say?

Hyde-Smith is under fire for two comments she made at campaign stops earlier this month that evoked the South’s racist history. Referring to a local rancher, she joked that, “if he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” 

The comments were a reminder of the public lynchings of African-Americans during the Jim Crow era. According to the NAACP, Mississippi had the highest number of lynchings of any state from 1882 to 1968.

In another incident, the senator suggested to a group of young voters that voter suppression would be “a great idea,” which again carries particular weight in Mississippi, a state that has long disenfranchised black voters.

“There’s a lot of liberal folks in those other schools who maybe we don’t want to vote,” she said. “Maybe we want to make it just a little more difficult. And I think that’s a great idea.”

How have people responded to her remarks?

Espy said Hyde-Smith’s remarks on attending “a public hanging” were “reprehensible” and “show that she lacks the understanding and judgment to represent the people of our state.” 

In response to the voter suppression comments, his campaign spokesman said: “For a state like Mississippi, where voting rights were obtained through sweat and blood, everyone should appreciate that this is not a laughing matter. Mississippians deserve a senator who represents our best qualities, not a walking stereotype who embarrasses our state.”

A number of civil rights organizations have condemned Hyde-Smith’s remarks, pointing to the state’s history of racism.

Several corporate donors, including retail giant Walmart, announced that they would pull their donations from Hyde-Smith’s campaign.

Did Hyde-Smith apologize?

She and her campaign initially claimed both comments were just jokes.

During the only debate between the two candidates last week, Hyde-Smith apologized to “anyone that was offended by my comments.” But she insisted that “this comment was twisted, and it was turned into a weapon to be used against me.”

Espy called her out. 

“No one twisted your comments. They came out of your mouth. I don’t know what’s in your heart, but we all know what came out of your mouth,” he said. He added that Hyde-Smith’s remarks have “given our state another black eye that we don’t need.”

Several other racist incidents involving Hyde-Smith have emerged in the last week.

In 2014, the senator promoted a picture of herself wearing a Confederate hat, calling it “Mississippi history at its best!”

The Jackson Free-Press reported over the weekend that Hyde-Smith attended one of Mississippi’s so-called segregation academies ― private schools established for white parents who didn’t want their children to attend school with black children long after the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board decision ordering the desegregation of public schools. Hyde-Smith sent her daughter to a similar school.

What other issues have come up in the campaign?

Hyde-Smith and Republicans have taken aim at Espy by focusing on his previous work as a lobbyist and accusations of corruption. Hyde-Smith released an ad suggesting that Espy lied about his lobbying work for an Ivory Coast despot now facing charges of war crimes, according to The Washington Post.

Espy’s connection to Clinton has also become a line of attack, as well as corruption claims that forced him to resign as Clinton’s agriculture secretary in 1994. Espy was later acquitted of the charges, which included taking improper gifts.

Trying to counter Hyde-Smith’s labeling of him as “a liberal Democrat,” Espy has portrayed himself as someone who can reach across the political aisle, highlighting his endorsement of the state’s former governor, Republican Haley Barbour, and talking about how he will work with the GOP on issues like health care. 

Who are some big names that have gotten involved?

President Donald Trump, who has endorsed Hyde-Smith, campaigned with her on Monday. Hoping to shore up support from her conservative base, Hyde-Smith has been a staunch Trump ally.

Espy’s closer-than-expected challenge has gained some support from high-profile national Democrats. Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) each campaigned with him in recent days, and former Vice President Joe Biden endorsed him last week. Espy hopes to increase black voter turnout but has also tried to appeal to white moderates who might be disillusioned with the state’s conservative Republicans, many of whom have run campaigns predicated on racism.

If I’m in Mississippi, can I still register to vote?

When do polls open and close?

Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. CST on Tuesday. Absentee ballots were due at 5 p.m. Monday.