Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) speaks to supporters during a Farmers for Cindy Hyde-Smith event at Wade Inc. in Greenwood Friday, September 7, 2018.

The sponsors of the only debate of this year’s Mississippi Senate campaigns has a long history of supporting Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, including through campaign donations from board members.

On Oct. 17, five board members of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, which organized tonight’s debate between Hyde-Smith and Mike Espy, a Democrat, made contributions to Hyde-Smith’s election campaign.

That day, Mississippi Farm Bureau President Mike McCormick gave Hyde-Smith $500, and four other board members have given a total of $4,000 to Hyde-Smith since July, records show.

None of the organization’s 26 current board members – comprised of 25 white men and one white woman – have given to Hyde-Smith’s Democratic challenger Mike Espy during this cycle.

“These members are five of a board of 26 farmers and ranchers engaged in many activities, and (Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation) will not speak for these board members and their individual political interests or what motivated them to contribute to any campaign,” said Jon Kalahar, communications director for Farm Bureau. “There was no MFBF sanctioned or sponsored event that day or at any other time.”

One of the most powerful lobbies in Mississippi government, the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation represents more than 193,000 farmers in all 82 counties. On its website, it describes itself as “a voluntary, non-governmental, non-partisan organization seeking solutions to problems affecting the lives of farm families, both socially and economically.”

Other board members who donated to Hyde-Smith on October 17 include Noble Guedon ($1,000), Mike Ferguson ($500), Donald Gant ($500) and Ted Kendall IV ($1,000). Kendall also gave $1,000 to Hyde-Smith on June 6. Kalahar said there was no Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation event on that day.

Over the past decade, Mississippi Farm Bureau has strongly supported Hyde-Smith and other Republicans. Hyde-Smith, who served as the state’s commissioner of agriculture and commerce from 2011 to 2018 and previously as a state senator, has received numerous awards, acknowledgements and publicity from the federation.

Farm Bureau does not officially endorse political candidates, Kalahar said, but the Mississippi federation has a long history of honoring Republicans in Washington, including in election years. 

On Nov. 2, just four days before Election Day, Hyde-Smith and the rest of the state’s Republican delegates in Washington received a “Friend of Farm Bureau Award” from the federation. U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, the state’s longest tenured delegate and lone Democrat who represents the agrarian Delta, received the same award in 2006 and 2008, Kalahar said.

“We are proud to honor Senators (Roger) Wicker and Hyde-Smith for their support of Mississippi farmers and ranchers,” McCormick, the Farm Bureau president, said in a Nov. 2 release. “Senator Wicker has been a true advocate in rolling back burdensome regulations by the EPA and championing the need for rural broadband. Senator Hyde-Smith has represented Southern agriculture well in the Senate debate of the 2018 Farm Bill. On behalf of all our members, I just want to say thank you.”

The organization’s history with Hyde-Smith predates her appointment to the Senate. When she was still Ag commissioner in November 2017, Farm Bureau brought farmers to her office to talk about regulations. When she was in her first term as Ag commissioner in December 2013, Farm Bureau gave Hyde-Smith their annual Distinguished Service Award. In 2012, Hyde-Smith was a keynote speaker at Farm Bureau’s Women’s Leadership Conference. When she was still a state senator in 2008, Hyde-Smith received the federation’s annual Ag Ambassador Award.

Espy, who represented Delta farmland as a U.S. congressman in the 1980s and 1990s and was appointed as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, does not have an existing relationship with Farm Bureau, but Espy spoke to the group in 1990, his campaign said. 

Mike Espy speaks during the Leaders Luncheon and Accountability Session at New Horizon Church Wednesday, November 14, 2018.

The Espy campaign was reluctant to accept the Farm Bureau debate initially, citing “a moral obligation,” according to Espy spokesman Danny Blanton, to accept an earlier debate proposal from Jackson-based Millsaps College and Mississippi Public Broadcasting. Millsaps sent a debate invitation to the two candidates the day after the Nov. 6 first election, according to an Associated Press report. 

Despite the Hyde-Smith financial support from Farm Bureau leaders, representatives of the organization maintain they did not coordinate with the Hyde-Smith campaign about the debate.

“The invitation was sent to both campaigns in the same email on November 7th at 3:53 p.m.,” Kalahar said. “All communication related to this debate has been provided to both campaigns.”

Melissa Scallan, a spokeswoman for Hyde-Smith, said she received the invitation from Farm Bureau before the Millsaps/MPB invitation and that Hyde-Smith did not have time to participate in two debates.

Both Hyde-Smith and Espy rejected offers to debate before Election Day, with Hyde-Smith citing commitments in Washington and Espy citing a dwindling desire to debate without the incumbent senator present.

Hyde-Smith, however, was captured on video in October saying she would not debate fellow Republican Chris McDaniel, a Tea Party favorite who was also running in the special election.

Kalahar, the spokesman, said among Farm Bureau’s 193,000 membership there are likely members who support Secretary Espy with donations as well as other candidates for local, state, and federal office.

Contributing: Bobby Harrison

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

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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, 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.