Firestorm over public hanging, vote suppression remarks triggers surge in campaign cash

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Featuring controversy and national intrigue, the Nov. 27 U.S. Senate runoff between Democrat Mike Espy and Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith is drawing big out-of-state money.

Both candidates are reporting large campaign contributions to the Federal Election Commission daily. The largest single day haul thus far was Thursday when Espy reported contributions of $163,500 from multiple individuals. During a two-day period last week, Hyde-Smith reported contributions totaling $138,600.

Federal law requires 48-hour reporting of all large contributions during the final days before an election.

The two are engaged in the fierce runoff after neither candidate garnered a majority vote in the Nov. 6 first election.

The runoff remained relatively quiet – the only Senate race still in question – until a video surfaced last Sunday of Hyde-Smith saying she would attend a “public hanging.” The result has been a renewed national interest in the race and a burst of national funding for both sides.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., speaks to media after speaking to an audience of supporters during a campaign stop at the Mississippi Agriculture & Forestry Museum in Jackson Monday, November 5, 2018.

That interest intensified Thursday when a second video emerged showing Hyde-Smith telling supporters at Mississippi State University that she would support steps to suppress “liberal voters” at some of the other state universities. On the same day, Fox News reported that, based on a Hill publication report in 2011, Espy lied about the amount of money he accepted lobbying for former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, who is currently on trial in the international court at The Hague on charges of murder, rape and torture.

According to the Hill, Espy said he accepted $400,000 of a scheduled $750,000 payment, but in reality, based on federal records, he received the full payment.

The Espy campaign has said that he stopped the lobbying effort — for the country’s Cocoa and Coffee Board — when the unrest in the country became apparent.

For its part, the Hyde-Smith campaign has said her comments involving public hangings and voter suppression were made in jest with no ill will intended and has lambasted the media for reporting them.

Though Republicans have a lock on majority control of the U.S. Senate regardless of how Mississippi votes on Nov. 27, strong efforts are under way to keep the state red. President Donald Trump will spend the day before the election in Tupelo and on the Gulf Coast, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee has planned to spend at least $1 million on a pro Hyde-Smith TV ad campaign, according to several outlets.

Republican parties in other states have begun throwing money into the race, as well. State parties in Florida, North Carolina and Tennessee each made $5,000 contributions, the maximum amount allowed by PACs, to Hyde-Smith for the runoff.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Mike Espy answers questions from Millsaps College students during a town hall meeting at the college Thursday, November 15, 2018.

But national Democrats believe the state is in play, particularly after Hyde-Smith’s comments surfaced where, while praising a supporter at a stop in Tupelo, she said if he invited her to a public hanging she would be on the front row. The Majority PAC, the Democratic-aligned committee, is buying airtime statewide. They released their first TV ad on Thursday, an attack of Hyde-Smith.

Democratic Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris — both of whom are reportedly considering 2020 presidential bids — are stumping for Espy in Mississippi.


The candidates themselves are racking up big checks, mostly from out of state. Since the Nov. 6 special election, Hyde-Smith has raised $288,400 and Espy has raised $317,567. Overall, including money raised before the first election on Nov. 6, Hyde-Smith has outraised Espy $4.2 million to $2.8 million.

Going into the runoff election, Espy, the former U.S. secretary of agriculture, had cash on hand of $248,211 to $204,460 for Hyde-Smith, a former state commissioner of agriculture and commerce.

Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour made a personal contribution. Several members of Barbour’s Washington, D.C.,-based lobbying firm, BGR, have donated to the Hyde-Smith campaign. Contributors to Espy include members of the entertainment industry, such as acclaimed director Steven Spielberg and Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels.

(Disclosure: Marsha and Gov. Barbour have donated to Mississippi Today)

The Republican Hyde-Smith, who was appointed by Gov. Phil Bryant to replace Sen. Thad Cochran who resigned for health reasons, is considered the heavy favorite to retain the seat. Her campaign in recent days has focused on Espy, who in 1986 became the state’s first African American U.S. House member since the 1800s, as being “too liberal for Mississippi.”

The question is whether the Hyde-Smith comments, caught on video and first posted by Bayou Brief, a Louisiana-based online outlet, will change the dynamics of the race.

When asked about the impact of the video recently, Espy said, “I don’t know.” He said he knew Hyde-Smith’s comments were “hurtful” and “sure inflamed passions. Does it mean they are going to vote? I don’t know. All I can do is keep my head down and keep knocking on doors.”

The campaign’s only debate, sponsored by the Farm Bureau and WLBT, will be carried live Tuesday across the state on multiple NBC stations.

Follow Mississippi Today’s full coverage of the historic runoff election between Cindy Hyde-Smith and Mike Espy.