Team Cindy: ‘Grossly unfair’ media coverage fueled the big Hyde-Smith victory they expected all along

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Cindy Hyde-Smith waves to supporters during her watch party at the Westin Jackson after winning a Senate runoff election against Mike Espy Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018.

Cindy Hyde-Smith beamed as she walked to the podium shortly before 10 p.m. on election night. For weeks her opponents and the media had latched onto controversial comments she made about public hangings and voter suppression, using those remarks — which the senator called jokes —along with images of her in Confederate attire, to label her a racist.

But that coverage, which included speculation that Hyde-Smith’s public gaffes could hand a victory to her Democratic opponent, Mike Espy, had missed the mark, Hyde-Smith told her supporters.

“The reason we won is because Mississippians know me, and they know my heart. And thank you for stepping up, Mississippi,” Hyde-Smith said from a riser at a Jackson hotel Tuesday night.

For Hyde-Smith and many of the senator’s supporters — including Gov. Phil Bryant, who that night introduced Hyde-Smith, his hand-picked successor to retiring U.S. Sen Thad Cochran in March — Tuesday’s victory over Espy was also a triumph over the two weeks of negative media attention on her campaign. And it was proof, they said, that Mississippi voters wouldn’t be cowed by the media.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Cindy Hyde-Smith speaks to media after after winning the Senate runoff election against Mike Espy Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018.

“I’d like to thank all the media in the back. Thank you!” Byrant told over three dozen national and state reporters at Hyde-Smith’s watch party. “Because your coverage helped turn out Republicans like never before. It’s because of what you did. You didn’t realize what was going on across Mississippi and across the nation. (Voters) said, “‘We’re not going to take it anymore. We’re not going to let the national media define Republicans. We’re just gonna win.'”

And Hyde-Smith’s 8-point victory over Espy was decisive. Unlike Florida and Arizona’s 2018 senate races, no one would be hand-counting ballots in Mississippi.

But also unlike Florida and Arizona, which have nearly split electorates, Mississippi is a deep red state. And Democrats hoping for a massive upset akin to Alabama’s 2017 senate race, in which now-U.S. Sen. Doug Jones narrowly beat Roy Moore, were sorely disappointed. But in the three weeks between the special election and Tuesday’s runoff, Democrats did manage to do something Republicans did not: pick up tens of thousands of votes.

On Nov. 6, Espy and the other Democrat in the officially nonpartisan race, Toby Bartee, earned a total of 372,819 votes. Meanwhile, Hyde-Smith and state Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, earned a total of 514,549 votes for Republicans, more than 57 percent of the electorate.

But on Tuesday, Espy received 410,693 votes, to Hyde-Smith’s 479,278 votes. This means that Espy gained nearly 38,000 votes while Hyde-Smith lost 35,000.

‘Election a wake up call’: Espy supporters see positives in Tuesday’s loss

Jordan Russell, Hyde-Smith’s campaign manager, who had been critical of state media coverage of the race long before the national media turned its attention to Mississippi’s election, said he had little doubt that the relentless scrutiny of Hyde-Smith’s comments, which skewed the race in Espy’s favor, cost the senator some of her lead.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith speaks to media after after winning the Senate runoff election against Mike Espy Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018.

“I think that the media being irresponsible in their coverage of the race certainly inflamed issues in a very unfortunate way, and I think that it certainly helped fuel Democratic turnout for sure, and I’m sure it did help make it a couple of points closer than it otherwise would have been,” Russell said. “But that’s what happens when the full weight of the media puts their thumb on the scale for one side. It certainly could have some impact on the race.”

“But the good news is at the end of the day voters saw through it for what it was and backed Cindy Hyde-Smith because she’s a good person and a good conservative and represents their values in Washington.”

But Hyde-Smith’s comments alone weren’t the only thing keeping the controversy alive. For nine days after the video of her talking about attending a public hanging surfaced, Hyde-Smith not only declined to apologize, she did not publicly address the issue. Only when asked directly during a Nov. 20 debate with Espy, did she offer an apology “for anyone that was offended by my comments.”

And waiting to apologize gave the media and her opponents nine days to speculate that Hyde-Smith either didn’t regret her remarks or didn’t understand their gravity in a state that used lynching by hanging as a mode of racial terror for over a century.

“I’m glad she apologized,” said state GOP chair Lucien Smith to Mississippi Today on Wednesday. “I would have been happier if she had apologized immediately. I don’t think she intended to reference a terrible point of our history, but I’m glad she apologized for it.”

“I was confident that Mississippians were going to focus on the policy implications of the race and vote for somebody who was going to support conservative policy and conservative judges when they got to Washington, irrespective of the videos,” Smith said.

But Russell and others close to the campaign said the increased negative attention had little impact on how Hyde-Smith’s campaign actually functioned as the election drew near. Because the voter participation often drops for a run-off, both sides have said that retaining as many of their own Nov. 6 voters on Nov. 27 was crucial to their victory strategy. And Smith said that had nothing to do with fallout from Hyde-Smith’s comments.

“We expected a runoff from the beginning and so we began preparing the largest data driven get-out-the-vote effort we’d ever had,” Smith said. “So that operation didn’t change. We tried to contact every Republican we could, and that was unaffected by the topics in the campaign.”

Ultimately voter participation in this election did rise a bit, from 887,368 to 889,971, with Democrats increasing their turnout by 10 percent while Republicans lost about 7 percent.

And if campaign strategy didn’t shift to manage the blowback from Hyde-Smith’s controversial remarks, the structure of her campaign events did. When Hyde-Smith began regularly traveling the state back in August, these stops often ran close to an hour, opening with a 10 to 15 minute talk from Hyde-Smith before she took questions from the audience. Afterwards, she would take part in a meet-and-greet with supporters and occasional interviews with press.

That began to change in October, as scrutiny over Hyde-Smith’s refusal to debate intensified. By the time she commenced a north Mississippi tour shortly before the runoff, events sometimes ended after just 15 minutes, often with the senator exiting through a back door. Questions about her public hanging remarks, shouted at Hyde-Smith as she climbed onto her bus or into a waiting SUV, went unanswered.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Cindy Hyde-Smith, center, talks to Gov. Phil Phil Bryant before addressing supporters at her watch party after winning the Senate runoff election against Mike Espy Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018.

“I think she gave plenty of access,” Russell said, referring to the last weeks of her campaign. “I watched her do dozens of interviews. People always want more time, and you can’t do everything for everyone all the time.”

At four of Hyde-Smith’s final campaign events, she answered just one question from the press, from an MSNBC reporter who asked why she had apologized. “Any time I’ve said anything and somebody got offended, I want to apologize,” she answered.

Supporters at a Hyde-Smith event in Columbus noticed the change in format. After speaking for just under five minutes, Hyde-Smith quickly left through the back door. The entire appearance lasted just 16 minutes. Her next stop in Meridian, 90 minutes away, wouldn’t begin for nearly two-and-a-half hours, though the buffer turned out to be fortuitous when her campaign bus, adorned with a photo of herself and President Trump, broke down just ten miles outside of Columbus.

“We had a long time with her when she came on the bus tour (last month),” said Carolyn Long. “But it was a lot shorter today. She had places to go.”

Asked if that bothered her, Long’s friend Dixie Balou shrugged.

“She really said the same thing she said in DeSoto County,” Balou said, referencing  President Trump’s campaign stop in October.

Russell called the media’s focus on Hyde-Smith’s comments “grossly unfair” and added the state media were at least as guilty as the national media.

Shortly after Hyde-Smith spoke Tuesday, an account called Team Cindy tweeted a video of a man throwing gasoline on a small fire and accidentally lighting up his entire backyard. The account labeled the man “Fake News Media” and the small fire “Mississippi Runoff election.” Several reporters who’d closely covered the campaign were tagged.

“I thought that both the state and the national media were almost uniformly in the tank for Mike Espy, and I think you guys knew full well what the context of her remark was and (still) chose to obsessively focus on it to the exclusion of the important issues of the day,” Russell said. “And I’ve been around plenty of campaigns over the last 10 years and I’ve never seen a worse case of media bias and blatant open cheerleading for one candidate over the other in my life.”

And many of the senator’s supporters seemed to agree. For example, more than a dozen friends and supporter of Hyde-Smith, several of whom had spoken to Mississippi Today at the party on Nov. 6, declined interviews at her election-night party.

Those supporters who did talk, though, said that they had little doubt Hyde-Smith would prevail over what many agreed was coverage that felt out of touch with what Mississippians felt was important.

“We know who she is,” said Phyllis Timbs. “She’s a true Mississippian and a true conservative. She loves her state and she stands behind her word.”