On Tuesday night, after just under 10 minutes of questions, U.S. Senate candidate Mike Espy thanked a crowd of reporters and walked away from the podium.

The two dozen members of local and national media then waited for Espy’s opponent in the U.S. Senate race, interim Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, who had just debated Espy in a room twenty yards from the podium, to take questions.

Instead, Mississippi’s other U.S. Senator, Roger Wicker, appeared. Asked if Sen. Hyde-Smith would be speaking to reporters, Wicker was curt.

“No. I think the debate speaks for itself,” Wicker said.

“I am glad to be here tonight as a spokesman… I think the story should be about the debate” and not what the candidates said after the debate, he added.

Until Tuesday night’s debate, sponsored by the Farm Bureau and WLBT-TV, the interim senator, who was appointed to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran in March, had avoided public events and media appearances. After the debate, time was set aside to allow the candidates to answer questions from the media.

Espy was elected in 1986 as the state’s first African American U.S. House member since Reconstruction and later became U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in the 1990s. He and Hyde-Smith, a former state senator and state agriculture commissioner, are running in a special election to replace long-term Sen. Thad Cochran, who stepped down for health reasons. Hyde-Smith was appointed to the post in the interim by Gov. Phil Bryant and is the first woman Mississippi has sent to Congress.

Although Tuesday’s debate performance was intended to quell a perception that Hyde-Smith is unable to speak for herself, it may have instead fanned the flames of discontent among her detractors, including Espy who, in his remarks to reporters, accused Hyde-Smith of reading from prepared notes during their debate.

While the candidates did not know what questions would be asked by panel of three journalists during the debate, Hyde-Smith and Espy were given notepads one hour before going on stage and allowed to make notes before going on stage. Before the debate, the Espy campaign had lobbied that the Farm Bureau not allow either candidate to have notes.

“I had a couple of notes jotted down. She had 30 pages of notes,” Espy said. Reporters were not allowed in the room with the candidates, but what appeared to be two stacks of paper, approximately an inch tall, could be seen on Hyde-Smith’s podium.

Debate night was the second time another state official has stepped up to speak in Hyde-Smith’s defense.

Last week, after a video surfaced of Hyde-Smith stating that she would be on the front row of a public hanging if invited by a supporter, she refused to answer questions from the media during a news conference. At that time, Bryant stepped up to defend her.

Nine days after video of Hyde-Smith’s “public hanging” comments went viral, she directly addressed the controversy. Previously, the senator said that any attempt to turn her statement “into a negative connotation is ridiculous.” Asked again about those remarks, Hyde-Smith publicly addressed the comments for the first time.

“You know for anyone that was offended by my comments I certainly apologize. There was no ill-will, no ill-intent whatsoever in my statement,” Hyde-Smith said. “In nearly 20 years of service, being your state senator, your commissioner of agriculture and your U.S. Senator, I have worked with all Mississippians. It didn’t matter their race, their age, their income — that’s my record. There has never been anything, not one thing in my background to ever indicate that I ever had any ill-will … This comment was twisted and it was turned into a weapon to be used against me, a political weapon.”

Espy, in his rebuttal, brushed the apology off as a half-measure.

“I don’t know what’s in your heart, but we all know what came out of your mouth,” Espy said.

He also mentioned that Walmart had asked the senator to return a $2,000 campaign contribution that the company made. The retailer said the senator’s comments about a public hanging “clearly do not reflect the values of our company and associates.” Since Walmart announced that early Tuesday, several other national companies, including AT&T and Leidos have asked the campaign to return their contributions.

“They’ve got a number of companies right now asking for their contributions back… Now  we’ve got Walmart workers in all areas and all those workers now understand that that’s just not the person that we need in the U.S. Senate because it just rejuvenates all those old stereotypes. We’ve got Walmart here now, but where are those companies that are not here now, that may be thinking about coming to Mississippi?” Espy asked.

Although Espy drilled in on Hyde-Smith for reading prepared remarks, in the debate both candidates relied heavily on lines they’d perfected during the last several months of campaigning.

Appointed U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., answers a question during a televised Mississippi U.S. Senate debate with Democrat Mike Espy in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, Pool)

Hyde-Smith opened the debate with one of her favorite expressions, saying “it’s not about me,” before giving bullet points on her support for veterans, the military and “conservative values.”

Hyde-Smith also repeatedly hammered Espy for lobbying in 2011 for the cocoa industry in Côte d’Ivoire and its president, Laurent Gbagbo, who was later charged with of murder, rape and torture.

“How can Mississippians relate to someone who takes $750,000 from a foreign dictator?” asked Hyde-Smith.

Espy said when he found out Gbagbo “was a really bad guy,” he canceled the contract, giving up the opportunity for future payments and reported to the CIA on information he had learned about the president.

The candidates hit other familiar themes for most of the debate. Espy said Hyde-Smith supported legislation that would not require insurance companies to cover pre-existing health conditions. Hyde-Smith challenged that claim, though, public health groups, such as the American Health Association, have agreed with Espy’s assessment.

Hyde-Smith said Espy was “too liberal for Mississippi,” a theme that was also replayed in several of her ads that played during commercial breaks throughout the debate.

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.

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.