Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith leads Mike Espy 49-41 in new poll by Public Policy Polling.

A new poll shows incumbent Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith leading 49-41 over Democratic challenger Mike Espy in November’s U.S. Senate race that is a rematch from their 2018 special election battle.

While the poll, conducted by North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling, appears to place Hyde-Smith in a commanding position, the Espy campaign views the poll results as a positive for their underdog campaign.

Joe O’Hern, campaign manager for Espy, said Hyde-Smith has been trying “to ride it out” to the November general election, depending on her incumbency and the built-in electoral advantage the Republican Party has in the state to win the election with limited campaigning.

“If this poll is any indication before paid media has started, she is not going to just ride it out,” said O’Hern.

Justin Brassell, a spokesperson for Hyde-Smith, said the campaign had not seen the PPP poll, but said the polling it has seen has placed the incumbent in an even more commanding position.

But Brassell said Hyde-Smith intends to start campaigning more in the coming weeks.

“We are gearing up the campaign now that the state has reopened” from COVID-19 closures, he said. “She has already held some telephone town halls, and we will be opening campaign field offices in the near future.”

Espy, whose campaigning also has been limited by the coronavirus, has done multiple virtual town halls, has handed out boxes of food during the pandemic, and was among the estimated 3,000 people participating in the Black Lives Matter protest this past weekend in Jackson.

The poll of 871 Mississippians on land lines and by text messages was conducted in late May and has a margin of error of 3.3 percent. The poll results were released by the Espy campaign. PPP, which conducted the poll, is a national polling company and has the rating of a B from Five Thirty Eight, a well respected online site that analyzes statistics and data.

Hyde-Smith, who was appointed to the post in April 2018 by then-Gov. Phil Bryant to replace long-time Sen. Thad Cochran who stepped down for health reasons, defeated Espy in a November 2018 special election. They are in engaged in a rematch for a full six-year term.

Hyde-Smith, the first woman elected to Congress from Mississippi, has a favorability rating of 44 percent approval and 31 percent disapproval. Espy is at 38 percent approval to 36 percent disapproval.

But among African American voters, according to the poll, Hyde-Smith is at 19 percent approval and 54 percent disapproval. Espy, who in 1986 because the first black elected to the U.S. House from Mississippi in the modern era, is at 64 percent approval and 17 percent disapproval among African Americans.

“Espy has potential for growth where Hyde-Smith performs poorly, especially among African American voters and women,” the PPP poll analysis concluded.

Among women Espy actually outperforms Hyde-Smith in the poll – 46 percent to 42 percent.

African Americans, who make up nearly 38 percent of the state’s population, encompass 35 percent of the poll’s respondents. When Espy announced his candidacy this past November, he said his goal was to have 35 percent of the electorate in November be African American. He said research conducted by groups affiliated with his campaign found that about 32 percent of the electorate was African American in 2018, when Hyde-Smith won 54 percent-46 percent.

Brassell said poll results the Hyde-Smith campaign has seen place the race closer to the findings of an Impact Management Group poll that had Hyde-Smith at 58 percent compared to 31 percent for Espy.

The PPP poll also found the approval rating for President Donald Trump at 52 percent. The poll respondents said they voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016 by a 55 percent to 39 percent margin with 6 percent not sure how they voted.

Perhaps the most surprising findings of the poll was the margin of support for expanding Medicaid: 57 percent to 22 percent. Many Republican elected officials in the state oppose expanding Medicaid by drawing down additional federal funds to provide health care coverage for as many as 300,000 low income Mississippians.

Espy has been campaigning on the issue of improving health care access in the state, including expanding Medicaid. An overwhelming number of Democratic respondents supported expanding Medicaid while it was supported by independents by a 47 percent to 22 percent margin, but opposed by Republican respondents 38 percent to 31 percent.

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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.