Polls results indicating most Mississippians would like to see candidates debate have not moved the frontrunners in the state’s two U.S. Senate races to reconsider their positions of not debating their opponents.

A spokesperson for Republican interim Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith said Tuesday that the candidate’s decision not to debate before the Nov. 6 election has not changed. The campaign of U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, a Tupelo Republican, did not respond to questions related to the debate, but has made it clear that he does not intend to debate his Democratic opponent, state Rep. David Baria of Bay St. Louis.

Hyde-Smith has not ruled out a debate if a runoff election is necessary. To capture the special election a candidate must garner a majority vote or the top two vote-getters advance to a runoff three weeks later.

In a video obtained last week, Hyde-Smith made it clear that she does not want to appear on stage with state Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, who is running in the special election as an anti-establishment candidate. In the past, she had said she did not have time for a debate before the Nov. 6 election because of her duties in Washington, D.C.

Asked Tuesday if she was afraid to debate McDaniel, Hyde-Smith spokesperson Melissa Scallan said, “Absolutely not. She is not afraid to debate at all. Chris McDaniel is running out of time, running out of money and he is just trying to garner free publicity. We are not going to give him a platform to continue spreading lies about Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith.”

The NBC News/Marist poll released Tuesday morning showed Hyde-Smith leading Democrat Mike Espy of Madison, a former U.S. House member and former secretary of agriculture, by a 38 percent to 29 percent margin with McDaniel at 15 percent and Gautier Democrat Tobey Bartee at 2 percent.

The poll went on to show Hyde-Smith defeating Espy 50 percent to 36 percent among likely voters in a potential runoff. The poll of 511 Mississippians was conducted Oct. 13-17 and has a margin of error 6.1 percent.

If McDaniel and Espy advanced to a runoff, the poll showed Espy leading 43 percent to 36 percent.

Of the poll, Tanner Watson, McDaniel’s spokesperson said, “When nearly half the voters (3/8) aren’t likely voters, the margin of error isn’t 4.7. or even 6.1. This poll claims 43 percent of registered voters opt for Espy, a man who’s never been on ballot statewide, and against (& for) whom no cash has been expended.

“This Marist/NBC poll is not credible. The same pollster, a week before the 2016 election, said Trump would lose North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin.”

Danny Blanton, a spokesperson for Espy, said, ”After spending nearly two million dollars on ads that have gone unchallenged, the appointed senator still hasn’t convinced voters that she’ll put Mississippi first. Instead, she’s hiding on a bus to avoid debating issues like where she stands on pre-existing conditions.

U.S. Senate candidate Mike Espy speaks during the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss. Thursday, August 2, 2018. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

“Meanwhile, Mike Espy is talking with voters on how to strengthen our state – by improving health care, keeping our hospitals open, and creating a better future for our young people. That’s where our campaign will continue to focus.”

The poll respondents also were asked about debates with 60 percent saying they would view “unfavorably” a candidate who refuses to debate.

But that result might not mean much to Hyde-Smith and Wicker since they have such commanding leads.

Of Hyde-Smith’s lead, Scallan said, “I think her numbers are trending up because people realize that Cindy Hyde-Smith is the only candidate who can beat Mike Espy. We do believe President Trump’s visit helped boost enthusiasm for the senator. He is extremely popular in Mississippi, and it was clear from the endorsement and the rally that she is his choice.”

In the other Senate election, poll respondents prefer Wicker 60 percent to 32 percent for Baria.

But Justin Brasell said the Wicker campaign is not paying attention to polls.

“Sen. Wicker is running on his record of accomplishments for Mississippi. He’s campaigning all across the state and looks forward to the Nov. 6 election,” Brasell said.

Alyssa Miller, a spokesperson for Baria, said she saw positives in the poll, such as Baria’s strong showing among millennials and suburban women. High turnout in those groups could make a difference for Baria, she said.

“This is the year of women and young voters, and we have seen record turnout” in early voting in those groups, she said. Plus, she said the poll re-enforces the fact that Mississippians want to see the candidates debate.

Miller said if Wicker “was not in California sipping chardonnay with his high dollar donor” he would understand that fact.

The winner in the Baria-Wicker race does not have to garner a majority vote to win on Nov. 6.

The poll contains some interesting nuggets that would be counterintuitive to what has occurred in past elections. For instance, Espy, the first African American from Mississippi elected to the U.S. House in the modern era, garnered only 66 percent support among black voters while fellow Democrat Baria totaled 68 percent in the other Senate election.

In recent years, it is not uncommon for African American support for the Democratic candidate to be nearer 90 percent and white support for the Republican to be similar.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.

Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.