Mike Espy trails Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in early polling.

Incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith has a 44 percent to 36 percent lead over likely Democratic challenger Mike Espy, according to a Millsaps College/Chism Strategies survey released Tuesday.

The poll is the first released for the anticipated rematch of Hyde-Smith and Espy. In the 2018 Senate special election runoff, Hyde-Smith won 53.6 percent to 46.4 percent.

The special election was to replace long-time Sen. Thad Cochran who stepped down in 2018 for health reasons.

Hyde-Smith, who is the first woman to represent Mississippi as a U.S. senator, is unopposed in the March party primary election. Espy, an attorney and former U.S. House member, will be opposed by Tobey Bartee who ran unsuccessfully in the 2018 Senate special election and Jensen Bohren in the Democratic primary.

Millsaps and Chism do quarterly polls on various state-related issues. Chism Strategies worked for Espy in the 2018 special election.

According to the poll, 35.6 percent of the respondents said they were definitely voting for Hyde-Smith compared to 28.6 for Espy while 8.7 percent said they probably would vote for the incumbent while 7.4 percent said they probably would vote for the challenger.

Still, Hyde-Smith had lukewarm overall approval ratings according to the poll. She had strong approval ratings of 25 percent while 18.5 percent said they “somewhat approve.” Conversely, 28.6 percent strongly disapproved while 7.3 percent somewhat disapproved of the senator’s job performance.

The poll was conducted earlier this month of 618 registered voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.94 percent. The results were weighted to match the anticipated turnout for the 2020 election.

In terms of the current Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, 52.7 percent oppose removing him from office while 42 percent are in support.

The poll found making health care more accessible and affordable is the top issue of 24.1 percent of respondents followed by 20.7 percent who said more funding for public education is the top issue.

An overwhelming majority of respondents (60.4 percent) voiced support for expanding Medicaid as is allowed under federal law. The question pointed out to respondents that Mississippi is one of 14 states not to expand Medicaid. The poll said expanding Medicaid would provide “greater financial stability” to rural hospitals and provide health insurance for low income citizens. Expansion was opposed by 28.6 percent.

New Gov. Tate Reeves, elected on Nov. 5, and House Speaker Philip Gunn continue to say they oppose expansion. New Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann has indicated he is willing to study the issue. It is unclear whether Hosemann will try to take up the issue during the ongoing 2020 legislative session.

Other poll results show:

  • 44.3 percent say the state’s roads and bridges are in poor condition and 33.8 percent in only fair condition, yet, a plurality (47.5 percent) oppose higher taxes to pay for improvements.
  • 50.1 percent said the state is heading in the wrong direction compared to 41.8 percent in the right direction. The average since Millsaps started doing the quarterly poll in September 2017, is 39 percent right direction compared to 38 percent wrong direction. The most recent poll is the first time wrong direction respondents hit 50 percent.
  • 30.8 percent approve of the performance of the Legislature compared to 43.9 percent who disapprove.

An overwhelming majority (60.4 percent) support the candidate receiving the most votes being elected to statewide office and removing provisions from the state’s 1890s Constitution that require a candidate for statewide office to garner a majority of the vote and win the most votes in a majority of the House districts. If no candidate achieves both of those constitutional mandates, the election is thrown into the House. The poll found 28.6 percent support for keeping the constitutional provisions that were put in place in the Jim Crow-era to ensure African Americans were not elected to statewide office.

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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.