- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith emerged victorious Tuesday night in the Mississippi Senate runoff, easily fending off Democrat Mike Espy in the deeply conservative Magnolia State.

With 97 percent of the vote counted, Ms. Hyde-Smith led Mr. Espy by almost 8 percentage points, getting 53.9 percent of the vote to 46.1 percent.

The Hyde-Smith victory was in line with most of the pre-runoff public polls.

In front of a jubilant crowd in Jackson, Ms. Hyde-Smith first thanked God and her family but then pivoted quickly to thanking President Trump, who made rally stops in Tupelo and Biloxi on Monday, just hours before polls opened.

“This is just an unbelievable night,” she said. “Mr. President, thank you so much for all of your help.”

In her brief speech, she also made an effort to reach out to the entire state.

“I want everybody to know, no matter who you voted for today, I’m going to always represent every Mississippian,” she said. “I will work very hard, do my very best to make Mississippi proud of its U.S. senator — the people of Mississippi deserve that.”

Mr. Espy addressed a dejected crowd also in Jackson before 10 p.m., much earlier than many people expected the runoff to be decided.

He brushed aside some moans from supporters when he called his opponent, “Senator Hyde-Smith,” and said he had called her and told her, “she has my prayers as she goes to Washington to work for a very divided Mississippi.”

Mr. Trump took to Twitter on Tuesday night to congratulate Ms. Hyde-Smith “on your big WIN in the Great State of Mississippi. We are all very proud of you!”

The runoff being the night’s sole race and its coming after Democratic victories nationwide on Nov. 6 meant it garnered considerable attention and was closer than recent statewide races in the state.

Ms. Hyde-Smith’s victory makes her the first woman to be elected U.S. senator in Mississippi, though an Espy win would have made history, too, as he would have become the first black person elected to such office since the Radical Republicans during Reconstruction.

However, partisan control of the Senate did not turn on the result; Republicans would have a majority either way and Ms. Hyde-Smith’s win cemented the margin at 53-47.

When polls closed at 8 p.m. EST, Mississippi officials estimated that between 30 percent and 40 percent of registered voters had cast ballots.

Mr. Espy, 64, trailed Ms. Hyde-Smith by just a point on Election Day, but since she failed to break the 50 percent barrier, the election functioned as a sort of jungle primary and led to Tuesday’s runoff.

Between Nov. 6 and Tuesday, however, both candidates stumbled.

Ms. Hyde-Smith’s own words and opposition research groups’ efforts produced an unwelcome picture of a racially insensitive Mississippian who joked about suppressing the liberal college vote. Democrats tried to magnify that image by blaming Ms. Hyde-Smith, now 59, for her parents’ decision to send her to a segregated academy in Mississippi as a schoolgirl.

To counter that, Ms. Hyde-Smith repeatedly brought up Mr. Espy’s checkered past, which included indictments stemming from his work as agriculture secretary in the Clinton administration. Although Mr. Espy was acquitted at trial of all charges, the Hyde-Smith campaign also unearthed information about Mr. Espy’s lucrative lobbying work on behalf of a former Ivory Coast dictator now on trial at the International Criminal Court facing charges of crimes against humanity.

Thus, the ebb and flow of the runoff weeks left each candidate with a clear objective. Ms. Hyde-Smith needed to persuade enough Mississippians not to stay home in yet another post-Thanksgiving election, while Mr. Espy worked to show he remained true to his state and was not a creature of the Washington “swamp.”

Democrats hoped Ms. Hyde-Smith’s awkward comments, including one about “a public hanging” in a state with a dark history of lynchings, would create a scenario similar to last year’s special Senate election in adjoining Alabama. But there, Republican Roy Moore faced much graver claims involving underage girls, and he was never a favorite of the Republican establishment.

Those weren’t handicaps for Ms. Hyde-Smith, who was appointed to the Senate by Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant when Sen. Thad Cochran resigned this year for health reasons.

Given Ms. Hyde-Smith’s support, along with the firm backing of President Trump who made two campaign appearances Monday on her behalf, Mr. Espy had a much steeper climb than Democrat Doug Jones had to capitalize on Mr. Moore’s past in Alabama.

Ms. Hyde-Smith did not apologize for her “public hanging” comment until the runoff’s only debate Nov. 20. Nevertheless, the incidents never knocked her off message. She insisted repeatedly that she would “represent Mississippi’s conservative values” and offered a stark contrast between herself and Mr. Espy on immigration, taxes, business regulation, judicial philosophy and the Second Amendment.

Ms. Hyde-Smith’s open embrace of Mr. Trump and his agenda also appeared designed to appeal to the nearly 17 percent of Mississippi voters who chose Chris McDaniel, a right-wing former state senator, on Election Day.

After his loss, Mr. McDaniel offered a lukewarm endorsement of Ms. Hyde-Smith, saying she was the only candidate left who could help Mr. Trump in Washington.

Mr. Espy allowed surrogates to launch most of the attacks against Ms. Hyde-Smith while he positioned himself as a Blue Dog Democrat with a lifelong affection for Mississippi. He insisted he would not be a mindless rubber stamp for the self-styled “resistance” to the Trump administration and held himself out as a gun owner who would not give knee-jerk support to any gun control measure.

At the same time, he acknowledged he would have voted against Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh in his contentious confirmation process last month. That provided ripe fruit for Mr. Trump, who in his Mississippi rallies repeatedly highlighted how Ms. Hyde-Smith was the candidate with the judicial philosophy most in tune with Mississippi’s majority.

Ms. Hyde-Smith and Mr. Trump also scoffed at Mr. Espy’s claim of independence, saying he would vote in lockstep with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California.

Mr. Espy said he would confront the administration when necessary but try to work with it in most cases, but appearances on the campaign trail for him from Sens. Kamala D. Harris of California and Cory A. Booker of New Jersey, two senators associated with the resurgent left wing, appeared to tie him closely to the Democratic Party’s best-known figures in Congress.

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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