Cindy Hyde-Smith wins Mississippi Senate seat in special election

Runoff race drew national attention after comments from Republican candidate stirred up state’s complicated racial history

Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith won in a special election for Mississippi’s senate seat.
Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith won in a special election for Mississippi’s Senate seat. Photograph: Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith won Mississippi’s special election runoff for the US Senate late on Tuesday, pledging in her victory speech to represent everyone in the state.

“The reason we won is because Mississippi knows me, and knows my heart,” said Hyde-Smith just before 10pm in a Jackson, Mississippi, hotel ballroom.

“I want everyone to know, no matter who you voted for today, I’m going to always represent every Mississippian.”

By a margin of 55% to 45% with 77% of precincts reporting, she bested Democrat Mike Espy in a closer than expected race that stirred up Mississippi’s complicated racial history.

The runoff drew national attention after Hyde-Smith made a series of racially loaded remarks, most notoriously when she said of a supporter “if he invited me to a public hanging, I would be on the front row.”

The statement provoked controversy in a state that had more lynchings than any other in the country, considering she ran against an African American opponent. Hyde-Smith was initially defensive about the comments and eventually offered an apology to “anyone that was offended” at the only debate of the runoff.

However, she immediately insisted that “this comment was twisted and it was turned into a weapon to be used against me”. The furor sparked by the comment led to a number of corporate donors to demand refunds of campaign donations to the appointed incumbent.

In her speech Hyde-Smith also said she had just spoken with Donald Trump, and thanked him for his help in securing the victory. Trump held two rallies for her in Mississippi on Monday.

It was a short speech to a crowd of about 100, with Hyde-Smith taking leave early for an early morning trip to back to Washington DC. Supporters stuck around to chat and shake hands with state Republican officials who mingled in the crowd.

Hyde-Smith was appointed to the seat earlier this year after the longtime incumbent Thad Cochran resigned due to ill health. A two-term state agriculture commissioner, the Republican was viewed as the best bet to head off a primary challenger from conservative firebrand Chris McDaniel, a state senator who had almost knocked off Cochran in 2014. McDaniel’s narrow loss in a primary runoff, after he had received the most votes in the initial round of voting, fueled conservative anger at the Republican establishment and became a rightwing cause célèbre for years afterwards.

Hyde-Smith earned vocal support from Donald Trump and McDaniel finished a distant third in the first round of voting with 16.5% of the vote. Hyde-Smith received 41.5% and Espy just behind her at 40.6%.

Espy was hoping that the controversy around Hyde-Smith’s remarks would lead to a replay of the Alabama special election in 2017 where Democrat Doug Jones won a narrow victory against Roy Moore by wooing Republicans appalled by their party’s nominee with moderate rhetoric. However, Hyde-Smith’s comments did not have the same electoral impact as the allegations of sexual assault against Moore did in Alabama.

Espy also faced his own controversial history. He was handed a 30-count indictment for taking improper gifts as secretary of agriculture under President Bill Clinton. Although the former congressman was acquitted, Hyde-Smith hammered Espy on that as well as his lobbying work for the government of Ivory Coast.

Partisan elections in Mississippi divide sharply along racial lines, and forecasters had concluded that to win Tuesday’s election, Espy would have needed to secure record turnout among black voters. Numbers were up compared with recent runoff elections, but not enough to turn the tide.

That’s not for a lack of effort on the part of volunteers who were out trying to turn out the vote through the final hours that polls remained open. For many, Hyde-Smith’s remarks had become an extra motivating factor in a contest steeped in racial overtones.

“It was a reality check for those of us who think we’re past some of this racism because we’re not,” said Allytra Perryman a community organizer with the Black Voters Matter Fund, adding that the recent comments by and revelations had “built a lot of energy in African-American community”.

In the southern Mississippi town of D’Iberville, sitting in the passenger seat of a silver pickup truck outfitted with Espy campaign billboards, Perryman asked resident after resident if they had voted through a microphone. Most nodded or gave a thumbs up, until one seemed to ignore her. She told the driver to slow up. “No, no, no, they’re going to have to tell me no to my face,” she said.

Nearby, outside a polling place in Moss Point, Jennifer Garraway waved and smiled at incoming voters holding a campaign sign for Espy and for a local judge candidate for much of the day on Tuesday. And when she knew the folks driving in – which was often – she encouraged them to roll down their windows for a chat.

She was pleased by the turnout she saw from her post on the side of the road. “You can’t expect to come out on the winning side if you don’t show up – and we showed up. That’s what’s important. You can’t sit on the sidelines and not be a part of this. People have died and put in blood for this,” Garraway said.