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Analysis: Groups pump money into Mississippi US Senate race

EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS

Interest groups are dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars into a special U.S. Senate election in Mississippi. It’s pocket change compared to millions being spent in Texas and Florida, but enough to buy advertising and pay for get-out-the-vote efforts in the mostly rural state.

The winner gets the final two years of a six-year term. In reality, though, victory could mean long-term job security because Mississippi has an extensive record of sending senators back to Washington for decades.

This special election is happening because one of those longtime senators, Republican Thad Cochran, retired in April at age 80 after spending nearly half his life in the Senate and six years before that in the U.S. House.

Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith, who was in her second term as state agriculture commissioner, to succeed Cochran until the special election is resolved. Party labels won’t appear on the ballot, but candidates are making their party preferences known to voters.

Hyde-Smith is challenged by Democrat Mike Espy, who is a former congressman and former U.S. agriculture secretary; Democrat Tobey Bernard Bartee, a former military intelligence officer who is spending little in his first run for public office; and Republican Chris McDaniel, a third-term state senator.

If nobody receives a majority Nov. 6, the top two will advance to a Nov. 27 runoff.

Hyde-Smith is endorsed by President Donald Trump and is receiving financial support from business interests that traditionally support Republicans.

Through Friday, political action committees had spent $1.8 million to support Hyde-Smith, according to the Campaign Finance Institute , a nonprofit group that evaluates money in politics. The biggest spenders favoring her are the National Association of Realtors at nearly $919,000 and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at $675,000.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has also spent $375,000 to oppose McDaniel, who, with the backing of tea party voters, nearly unseated Cochran in a bitter 2014 Republican primary.

A PAC called Mississippi Victory Fund has spent nearly $395,000 opposing McDaniel. Its biggest donor is New York-based tech entrepreneur Sean Parker, who gave $250,000. It also received donations of $25,000 each from former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and two other prominent Mississippi Republicans, W.D. “Billy” Mounger and Joe Sanderson.

Remember Mississippi has spent more than $300,000 supporting McDaniel and $206,000 opposing Hyde-Smith. The PAC’s name — reminiscent of the battle cry “Remember the Alamo” — comes from McDaniel supporters’ belief that establishment Republicans played dirty to propel Cochran to victory in the 2014 primary. Remember Mississippi’s biggest donations include $1 million from billionaire investor Robert Mercer of New York and $750,000 from Richard Uihlein of Illinois, a packaging company executive who has donated to anti-union causes.

Through Friday, $392,000 had been spent to support Espy by PowerPACPlus , a group that says its goal is “to build the political power of America’s multiracial majority.” In 1986, Espy became the first African-American of the 20th century to win a U.S. House seat in Mississippi. Now, he’s trying to build a multiracial coalition to become the state’s first black senator since Reconstruction. One of the biggest donors to PowerPACPlus is Herbert Sandler of San Francisco, a billionaire former banker who put in $600,000 this year has also given money to a liberal public policy advocacy group called the Center for American Progress.

Independent spending by PACs is likely to continue growing in the final days of the election, in addition to spending by candidates’ own campaign committees. Hyde-Smith has raised nearly $3 million; Espy, nearly $1.6 million; McDaniel, about $583,000 and Bartee, $4,058.

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» EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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