Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith held off Democratic challenger Mike Espy Tuesday night, becoming the first woman Mississippians have elected to Congress.
Hyde-Smith defeated Espy by a comfortable margin Tuesday night, slamming the door on national speculation about whether the deeply Republican state would elect a Democrat to the U.S. Senate for the first time since the rise of the modern GOP.
“I’ve said all along, this isn’t about me. This is about the people of Mississippi, and what’s important to the people of Mississippi,” Hyde-Smith told a crowd of about 80 supporters at the Westin in Jackson on Tuesday night. “This win tonight, this victory, it’s about our conservative values. It’s about the things that mean the most to all of us Mississippians, to our state, our families.”
Hyde-Smith replaces U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, the former Appropriations Committee chairman who retired in April due to health concerns. Hyde-Smith will serve in the seat until 2020, the end of the six-year term Cochran won in 2014.
Espy was running to make history himself. Had he won on Tuesday, he would’ve been the first African American in Mississippi elected to the Senate. Shortly after the race was called, Espy addressed supporters at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, where his historic election to Congress in 1986 is memorized.
“While not the results we were hoping for, I am still so proud of this very historic campaign,” said Espy.
He told the crowd that he had called Hyde-Smith to congratulate her after a grueling campaign that drew national attention in large part because of Hyde-Smith’s comments about attending a public hanging and supporting voter suppression. She said she was joking in each instance.
“She has my prayers as she goes to Washington to unite a very divided Mississippi,” Espy said.
As he left the stage with his family, many in the crowd shouted “we like Mike.”
“I thought Mike Espy ran a very good campaign,” said supporter Machelle Kyles of Bolton. “My thoughts – Mississippi is still a very segregated state. We did have good people to come out, but we still have a long way to go.”
She said of Hyde-Smith’s comments, “My culture and my heritage have come too far to endure that.”
Meanwhile Hyde-Smith’s camp was ebullient. As the large projector screen showed a reporter from Fox News calling the election for Hyde-Smith, the room erupted in cheers. Supporters, including a group of about a dozen of Hyde-Smith’s cousins and longtime friends, all dressed in red, held up campaign signs as Martina McBride’s “This One’s For the Girls” pumped through the speakers.
“It’s a huge significance, because if you look at Republican women across the nation and in our state we’re not having the same gains in electing women as our colleagues in the Democratic party are,” said state Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven, who has held Hyde-Smith’s old seat since 2011.
“And I think this really shows the nation that Mississippi is moving ahead. We will elect a woman and we will elect who’s right for the job. And Cindy showed that throughout her campaign.”
Hyde-Smith and Espy squared off in Tuesday’s runoff after a Nov. 6 special election in which two other candidates, including anti-establishment conservative Chris McDaniel, were defeated. Because no candidate got 50 percent three weeks ago, the top two vote-getters Hyde-Smith and Espy advanced to the runoff.
The election marks the end of a bitter and expensive race. Millions in out-of-state money poured into the state as national pundits speculated on the outcome of the race, particularly after controversy dominated national headlines.
At a Nov. 2 campaign event, Hyde-Smith said of a supporter: “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” Espy talked often about the comment during the runoff. After nine days of not commenting on her remarks and the controversy they generated, Hyde-Smith made a pseudo-apology during the Senate debate on Nov. 20. And she strategically avoided press questions as Espy’s campaign criticized her for the comments.
Attack ads looped on statewide television since Nov. 6. Hyde-Smith’s camp painted Espy as a corrupt politician, highlighting his federal corruption indictments when he served as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in the 1990s. Espy was acquitted of all charges.
“Yeah, it wasn’t the best thing to say,” said Rick Huffstutler, referring to Hyde-Smith’s public hanging comments at her party on Tuesday. “But Espy taking $750,000 from a dictator who killed and raped Africans. And the media acts like that’s okay?”
Espy’s camp, meanwhile, painted Hyde-Smith as a candidate who was not accountable to Mississippians and “has rekindled images of the state that most want to leave behind.”