Mike Espy lost a hard-fought U.S. Senate contest in Mississippi but had the strongest showing of any Democrat seeking that office the past 30 years in a state where Republicans have steadily increased their power.
The last time any Democrat had a comparable performance in a U.S. Senate race in Mississippi was in 1988, when two sitting congressmen ran for a job that was open because Democratic Sen. John C. Stennis chose not to seek re-election after 42 years. Democrat Wayne Dowdy received 46.1 percent of the vote, losing to Republican Trent Lott, who received 53.9 percent.
Hyde-Smith is the first woman elected to either chamber of Congress in Mississippi, and she won the rest of Cochran’s six-year term, which ends in January 2021. Espy was seeking to become the first African-American U.S. senator from the state since Reconstruction.
Mississippi’s troubled racial history became a focal point during the runoff after a video released Nov. 11 showed Hyde-Smith praising a supporter at a Nov. 2 event in Tupelo by saying: “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” A separate video showed her in Starkville talking about “liberal folks” and making it “just a little more difficult” for them to vote.
Hyde-Smith’s campaign said her remarks about voting were a joke. She said the “hanging” comment was “an exaggerated expression of regard,” and she read an apology more than a week later during a televised debate.
Terrence Wilson, a 52-year-old mortgage banker, said after casting his ballot at a church in south Jackson that he voted for Espy. Wilson, who is black, said he was disturbed by Hyde-Smith’s hanging remark. He described it as “inappropriate,” given Mississippi’s history of violence, including lynchings. He said the state has been trying to progress and Hyde-Smith’s remark was “not a step forward.”
Asked if Hyde-Smith’s comment affected how people view Mississippi, Wilson said: “People are still going to think whatever they think. I thought Mississippi was a certain way until I spent time here.” Wilson grew up in Flint, Michigan, but moved to Mississippi in the mid-1980s to attend Alcorn State University; he got married and stayed.
At the same precinct, 64-year-old teacher Libby Moore voted for Hyde-Smith, saying the Democratic Party is “too liberal.” Moore taught 28 years in public schools and is now in her second year of teaching science at a private school. Asked about Hyde-Smith’s hanging remark, Moore, who is white, said: “I thought it was a stupid thing to say…. I don’t think, personally, that she meant anything racist about it.”
Moore said, though, that Hyde-Smith’s remark gave people reason to think, “‘Oh, well, here Mississippi is again, doing something stupid or showing their racist side.'”
Hyde-Smith delivered a unity message during her victory speech.
“No matter who you voted for today, I’m going to work very hard to represent all Mississippians,” Hyde-Smith said. “You handed me a victory; you put confidence in me; I will not let you down.”
Espy told his own supporters that he had called Hyde-Smith to concede.
“She has my prayers as she goes to Washington to unite a very divided Mississippi,” he said. “She has my prayers and my willingness to help her to do that.”
» Associated Press writer Jeff Amy contributed to this report. Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .
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