When Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves stepped up to the podium to introduce U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith at her victory party last night, he made a prediction: “I believe we’re going to wake up tomorrow and Donald J. Trump will be re-elected president of the United States.”
He was wrong. Though Trump handily won Mississippi, by morning Democrat Joe Biden had erased Trump’s lead in the crucial swing states of Wisconsin and Michigan, though the race has not yet been called with votes still uncounted in a number of states.
The governor was right about one thing, though: Mississippi re-elected Hyde-Smith, a Republican, to her first full six-year term in the U.S. Senate. Her Democratic opponent, Mike Espy, conceded last night, congratulating his Republican opponent.
At Hyde-Smith headquarters, the senator pumped her fist jubilantly as she took the stage.
“The only thing better than beating Mike Espy is to beat him twice,” she told a cheering crowd.
With about 81% of votes counted by 4:20 p.m. today, Hyde-Smith led Espy 55.6% to 42.5%, with Libertarian Party candidate Jimmy Edwards winning 1.9% of the vote.
A number of counties have not yet counted absentee ballots, though, which could help Espy close the gap some. The outstanding ballots are not expected to be enough to change the outcome of the election, however.
‘You’ve Got to Be Submissive’
During her victory speech, the white senator described her battle against Espy, who would have been the first African American to serve in the U.S. Senate on Mississippi’s behalf since the 1880s, as one between morally opposed cosmic forces.
“It was good and evil on the ballot today. It was protecting the lives of the unborn on the ballot today. It was the Second Amendment that was on the ballot today. It was socialism that was on the ballot today,” Hyde-Smith said, riling up the crowd by framing her opponent on the “evil” side of the battle with false inferences about him.
In an interview with this reporter for another publication in 2018, when he first challenged Hyde-Smith in a special election, Espy described himself as “personally pro-life” but said he believed abortion should be a decision between a woman and her doctor.
The Democratic candidate also was not a Second Amendment opponent, and even received endorsements and awards from the National Rifle Association when he was a member of Congress. He did endorse universal background checks, which the NRA and other gun-rights organizations once supported, too.
While Hyde-Smith, like Reeves, often refers to political opponents as “socialists,” Espy has never espoused socialism, and often took moderate or center-left positions on economic policies during both his 2018 and 2020 campaigns. During the 1990s, he served as the U.S. secretary of agriculture under President Bill Clinton, and he cited siding with President Ronald Reagan on some legislation during this campaign.
Last night, Hyde-Smith said she was “honored that the people of Mississippi” chose her to continue her job as U.S. senator. When former Gov. Phil Bryant first told her he wanted to appoint her to fill the U.S. Senate seat that former Sen. Thad Cochran vacated in 2018, she said she almost turned down the opportunity to become the first woman to represent Mississippi in either house of Congress, but came to see it as a providential moment.
“If you want to be at the center of God’s will, you’ve got to be submissive. And I’m so glad I said yes,” Hyde-Smith told her supporters last night. “It’s surreal to me all the time when the president calls me like he did the other morning and says, ‘You’re going to be fine, Cindy.’”
During her time in the Senate, Hyde-Smith has latched closely to Trump in her votes and her public positions, touting her relationships with him and support for his agenda. With Biden close to clinching the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency, though, Hyde-Smith could return to Washington next year just as Trump leaves.
‘We’re Going to Elect Someone Who Loves Mississippi’
When Gov. Reeves took the podium to introduce the senator last night, he characterized the national media as clueless about Mississippi.
“If you pay any attention to the liberal national pundits, they say, ‘You know, that person running as a Democrat in Mississippi might have a chance.’ But they don’t understand that here in Mississippi, we’re going to go to the polls and we’re going to elect a conservative the United States Senate—we’re going to elect a Republican to the United States Senate,” he said.
Despite the governor’s partisan broad strokes, about 38% of Mississippi is Black, and the state has the highest per capita population in the country. A large majority, but not all, Black Mississippians vote for Democrats.
In 2018, Black voters helped Espy win 46.4% of the vote—the most for any Mississippi Democrat running for U.S. Senate since the 1980s. In 2019, they helped Reeves’ Democratic opponent, Jim Hood, win 47.5% of the vote in the closest governor’s race since the 2000s.
Reeves was not done characterizing Mississippi voters—and making negative inferences about Espy, though.
“We’re going to elect someone who loves Mississippi, someone who loves the industries that are important to our state like agriculture, someone who recognizes that Mississippi is not just one metro area, but Mississippi is three million people committed to a great, great, great land,” Reeves said last night.
Contrary to those comments, though, Espy did not focus his campaigns on “one metro area.” Reeves was referring to Jackson, the more than 75% Black capital city.
Throughout the race and since he launched his second U.S. Senate campaign in 2019, Espy has traveled around the state, with dozens of campaign events, not only in larger metropolitan areas, but in rural predominantly white parts of Mississippiand Black rural areas alike.
By the end of September, Hyde-Smith had not scheduled a single publicly announced campaign event for the 2020 cycle, even though Espy had been campaigning across the state for nearly a year by that time. She began holding campaign events in early October, with little warning and frequently without informing members of the press ahead of time.
Hyde-Smith has expressed distaste for the idea of campaigning across the state in the past. When she was the Mississippi agriculture commissioner in 2013, she told an audience at Mississippi State University that she initially scoffed at the idea of running for the job because of the travel demands.
“I am not interested in 82 counties to go campaign. I can just now say ’82 counties’ and not throw up,” Hyde-Smith said in 2013.
Reeves’ implication that Espy was not someone who “loves industries that are important to our state like agriculture” also ignored the Democrat’s persistent outreach to Mississippi farmers. In 2018, Espy spent much of his campaign focusing his message on Mississippi’s rural farmers who were suffering economically amid Trump’s trade war with China and the ensuing tariffs on crops like soybeans.
Hyde-Smith Cast Espy as Criminal
During the campaign, Hyde-Smith and Mississippi Republicans invoked Espy’s 1997 indictment on allegations that he accepted illegal gifts from companies during his time as U.S. agriculture secretary.
“The difference between us, number one, I’ve never been indicted. He has,” Hyde-Smith told WAPT News 16 in October. She also ran TV ads, including during NFL footgame games the Sunday before the election, emphasizing that he had been charged with 39 felonies, but without mentioning the outcome.
A jury acquitted Espy of all charges in 1997—something recent GOP ads casting Espy as a felon did not mention; anti-Espy campaign mailers also omitted that fact during the 2018 campaign.
Espy had refused a plea deal before jurors in the case acquitted him on all 30 charges after nine hours of deliberations. Several jurors spoke to the press afterward, criticizing the prosecution.
The prosecution was “placing dots but never connecting them,” juror Diane Clayton-Koontz told The Washington Post back then. Anthony Young, another member of the jury, told the Post that the trial was “trivial” and “petty.”
“This was the weakest, most bogus thing I ever saw,” Young told the Post after the trial. “I can’t believe (the prosecutor) ever brought this to trial.”
In a 1999 opinion that U.S. Supreme Court opinion on a related case, conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a Republican appointee, criticized Espy’s prosecution.
The prosecutor took such a broad view of the law he used to charge Espy, the justice wrote, that it would criminalize even innocuous gestures, such as giving a token gift to a visitor with no quid pro quo involved.
“Some particular act must be identified and proved,” Scalia wrote. “The Government’s alternative reading would produce peculiar results, criminalizing, e.g., token gifts to the President based on his official position and not linked to any identifiable act—such as the replica jerseys given by championship sports teams each year during ceremonial White House visits.”
During the 2018 special election, the Democrat told this reporter in an interview for another publication that he “refused all plea bargains because I was innocent.”
“Now, if (opponents) want to raise all this again, they can, but I can only say this: It doesn’t matter what they call you; it only matters what you answer to. I answer to exonerated,” he said in August 2018.
Despite the overtly partisan nature of Hyde-Smith’s campaign, she has recently made some bipartisan overtures on issues in the U.S. Senate.
On Sept. 24, the senator introduced the RESTART Act with Democratic U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen of Nevada. If it became law, the bill would provide grants “for small and medium-sized STEM businesses to offer robust, paid, mid-career internships, known as ‘returnships,’ for mid-career workers seeking to return or transition into the STEM workforce,” Hyde-Smith and Rosen said in a statement announcing the bill.
It would prioritize “returnships for underrepresented populations” to close the hiring gap, prioritizing women, Black and Latino Americans and people in rural communities, the senators said.
Last night, Hyde-Smith told supporters that she wants to focus on economic growth when she returns to the U.S. Senate “to make sure that we have an environment that we can prosper in” and where businesses “can employ people to provide that.”
Espy: ‘I Was Not Able to Cross That Bridge’
Espy told members of the media last night that he still believes Hyde-Smith “is holding Mississippi back.”
“But that opinion did not prevail” at the polls, he said.
The Democrat said he believed his campaign had built infrastructure throughout the state that will help members of his party.
“Though I was not able to cross that bridge, others after me will be able to,” he said.