As lawyers for Rick Scott and Bill Nelson begin litigating the resolution of their Senate race in Florida, voters just a few states over are quietly preparing to cast ballots in a contest that has yet to actually take place: Mississippi's Cindy Hyde-Smith, appointed by the governor in March to replacing the retiring Thad Cochran, failed on Election Day to earn the majority necessary to win the special election for the right to serve out the remainder of Cochran's term, which expires in 2021. Thus, the top two vote-getters—Hyde-Smith, a Republican who took home 41.5 percent of the vote, and Democrat Mike Espy, a black former congressman, who finished just behind her at 40.6 percent—will head to a runoff on November 27.
All this means is that right now is not a great time for Cindy Hyde-Smith to do this:
Hyde-Smith is not talking about Espy here. But even so, at best, her comments are a profoundly ill-advised attempt at folksy humor in the state that was the nation's lynching capital between the end of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. It is a grim reminder of how deeply the ugly vestiges of lynching culture are engrained in certain segments of the population, and of how little those people think or care about the significance of their words for Americans who do not look like them. In any election, but especially one against a black man, flippantly discussing one's soft spot for the practice of racially-motivated mob killings is not a recommended approach.
On Sunday, Hyde-Smith characterized her comments as "an exaggerated expression of regard," and dismissed "any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation" as "ridiculous." At a press conference on Monday, she responded to questions—among many others, "Are you familiar with Mississippi's history of lynchings?"—by repeating, over and over, "I put out a statement yesterday, and I stand by the statement." When reporters appealed to governor Phil Bryant for help, he conceded that "all of us in public life have said things on occasion that we could have phrased better," and otherwise defended her as follows: "I think she is addressing the fact that she put out a statement."
Cindy Hyde-Smith is not Roy Moore, and racist language, as disgusting as it is, does not inspire the same brand of universal revulsion as does child predation. But in a world in which someone with a (D) next to their name can win an honest-to-God Senate seat in Alabama, and after Democrats won control of a deeply-gerrymandered House by winning in both toss-up and long-shot districts, no outcome can be ruled out anymore. Besides, like Moore, Hyde-Smith is a weak candidate, albeit for different reasons: She was a Democrat for the first decade of her political career before switching parties in 2010, a dubious history that factored in to President Trump's decision to withhold his support until the end of the campaign. And despite her strident efforts to tie herself to Trump, the presence of paleo-bigot Republican Chris McDaniel in Election Day's jungle primary—he finished with about 16 percent of the vote—helped prevent her from getting the kind of traction she needed to win a contest which, frankly, she should have been able to walk away with.
Espy, meanwhile, is about as viable as a Democratic candidate gets in the Deep South: In 1986, he became Mississippi's first black representative since Reconstruction, and went on to win three reelection campaigns. Beginning in 1992, he served for several years as President Clinton's Secretary of Agriculture before resigning over one of those "gift-giving investigations" that qualified as scandalous back in the mid-90s and now just describes day-to-day governance in the White House. (He was acquitted of all charges.)
Espy also boasts the type of moderate bona fides that one needs to be a Democrat in Mississippi: He endorsed Republican governor Haley Barbour in 2007, and made sure to profess his admiration and respect for Cochran when he announced his Senate bid. As a congressman, the National Rifle Associate bestowed on him its "Silver Rifle" award in 1988. In other words, if anyone can cobble together a winning coalition of Democrats and right-of-center voters who aren't so sure about Hyde-Smith, Trump, or both, it's going to be someone like Mike Espy. Doug Jones won in Alabama on the strength of African-American turnout, and Espy has hired Jones' special election-winning team in the hopes of pulling off another upset.
The odds are still, to put it charitably, long. Espy finished less that one point behind Hyde-Smith, but McDaniel was the only other candidate to put up any numbers of note. If you assume that McDaniel supporters begrudgingly line up behind Hyde-Smith once they have no other Republican choice, she cruises to victory in the runoff. But if Hyde-Smith is not exactly beloved in the state, and her conduct on the campaign trail is doing her candidacy no favors. If some McDaniel people find her to be insufficiently MAGA-ish for their tastes, and decide to just stay home on November 27? And if Espy can chip away at the state's built-in partisan disadvantage by getting more people than usual to the polls, just like Jones did a year ago? Then maybe. Maybe.
Here is some interesting math: Between the two primaries in Alabama in 2017, Republicans earned almost 75 percent of the total number of voters. Last week, Hyde-Smith and McDaniel combined for only 58 percent in Mississippi. If Jones can come away with a Senate seat in the first scenario, Espy has a fighting chance of doing so in the second one—which means that Hyde-Smith would be well-advised to cut down on the casual racism sooner rather than later.