‘The last thing I’m worried about’: Sen. Hyde-Smith walks back willingness to debate Espy

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Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith speaks to supporters during a campaign event hosted by the Madison County Republican Women, the Rankin County Republican Women and the Hinds County Republican Women on Wednesday evening at The Range in Gluckstadt.

Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, who less than a week ago said she “wouldn’t mind” debating Democratic challenger Mike Espy, said on Wednesday evening a debate is “the last thing I’m worried about.”

Espy has accepted two debate invitations and has publicly chided Hyde-Smith for not doing the same.

“There is just such stark differences,” Hyde-Smith told WJTV on Wednesday. “So why would such stark differences, so much emphasis being put on a debate — if it was, if we were so close and people really wanted to hear, Mike Espy would be the most liberal candidate we’ve ever had in Mississippi. I’m a proven conservative, so, you know, I don’t think a lot of minds would be changed.”

In two separate statements within the past week, Hyde-Smith suggested she might be willing to debate Espy.

“I don’t know if the schedule will allow that. I don’t mind debating him at all,” Hyde-Smith told WJTV on Oct. 2. “We’ve already done that (in 2018). But you know, I’m more concerned right now on the issues in front of us than I am a debate. But I wouldn’t mind doing it at all, if the schedule allows that.”

Mississippi politicos have surmised that Hyde-Smith — prone to gaffes on the public campaign trail — believes she has a substantial lead in the race, can ride President Donald Trump’s coattails with voters, and is otherwise laying low and trying not to give Espy’s campaign any platform.

She is one of just nine U.S. senators running for re-election this year who has not agreed to a debate. Most of the eight other incumbent U.S. senators who have not agreed to debate face little-known, little-financed, or third party challengers.

READ MORE: Most U.S. senators running in 2020 have agreed to debate. Cindy Hyde-Smith has not.

In 2018, Hyde-Smith and Espy debated when they were vying in a special election to replace longtime Sen. Thad Cochran, who resigned for health reasons. Hyde-Smith was appointed by then-Gov. Phil Bryant to replace Cochran in the interim before the special election. She is now vying for a full six-year term, and Espy, who captured more than 46% of the vote in 2018, is challenging her again.

Hyde-Smith, in a video interview with Gray DC posted on Oct. 5, was asked to share her thoughts about the upcoming vice presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris.

“Well, you know, it’s always good to get their opinions on things, to be able to watch them,” Hyde-Smith said of the vice presidential debate. “They’re under pressure at that time, but how they respond. You’ve got two smart individuals there, and I think it will be very positive.”