Mississippi voters overwhelmingly want candidates to debate, poll finds

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Tom Williams, CQ Roll Call

Sens. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., and Roger Wicker, R-Miss., talk before the Senate Policy luncheons in the Capitol on June 26, 2018.

A strong majority of Mississippians appear opposed to the decisions of U.S. Sens. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Roger Wicker not to debate before the Nov. 6 general election.

A survey conducted by NBC News/Marist and released Tuesday morning reveal that 60 percent of Mississippians would unfavorably view a candidate who refused to debate while 11 percent would view the non-debating candidate more favorably and 22 percent said it would make no difference for them.

Both Hyde-Smith, an interim U.S. senator running for the first time on Nov. 6, and Wicker, an incumbent running for re-election, have steadfastly refused invitations to debate their opponents.

Republican Hyde-Smith, appointed by Gov. Phil Bryant to serve in the interim after long-time U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran retired in March for health reasons, has been challenged to debates by both Republican Chris McDaniel, a state senator from Ellisville and a Tea Party favorite, and Democrat Mike Espy, a former U.S. House member. Tobey Bartee, a Gautier Democrat, also is running in the special election.

Espy said Friday during a campaign stop in Greenville he would be willing to debate Hyde-Smith at a moment’s notice, including “tonight” if she would accept the invitation. He portrayed himself as the experienced candidate, serving three terms in Congress and a stint as agriculture secretary in the Clinton administration – noting that Hyde-Smith had only been in federal office since April. Previously, she served as commissioner of agriculture and commerce on the state level.

Hyde-Smith told Mississippi Today last week she believes she can better serve voters with a statewide bus tour than by debating her opponents.

According to the NBC poll, 34 percent of likely voters would prefer to learn about the candidates’ positions on issues through a debate while 26 percent preferred through media interviews. Those two options far outdistanced the other choices the pollster offered to respondents to learn about the candidates, such as through town hall meetings, rallies or advertisements.

Wicker, a Republican who is running for a second six year term, also has refused to debate his opponent – state Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis.

In 2008 Wicker was in the same position as Hyde-Smith and he did debate. He was the interim U.S. senator, appointed to the position by then-Gov. Haley Barbour when Trent Lott retired early.

Wicker and former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove debated at an event at Mississippi College School of Law in Jackson.

And in 1998, Lott and Democrat Wayne Dowdy debated when they were running to replace Sen. John Stennis.

In the special election, if no candidate garners a majority vote, the top two vote-getters will advance to a runoff on Nov. 27, providing additional debate opportunities.

The incumbents or favored candidates in the fourth U.S. House races also have rejected debate opportunities in advance of the Nov. 6 special election.

The NBC-Marist Poll of 511 Mississippians was conducted Oct. 13-17 and has a margin of error 6.1 percent.