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WASHINGTON — After her closer-than-expected victory over Democrat Mike Espy in a 2018 special election runoff, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith’s political advisors repeatedly recommended she embark on what would amount to an apology tour to publicly and privately rehab her image.
The idea, according to a source active in Mississippi Republican politics who asked for anonymity in order to speak candidly about the campaign, was that she visit every major media market in the state and subject herself to a sit-down interview. Her advisors wanted her to clear the air about a jarring comment she made at a November 2018 campaign event in Tupelo, when she praised a local cattle rancher by saying, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”
The comment — made by an appointed U.S. senator who represented the Blackest state in the nation, a state where more people were lynched than any other in the nation — garnered national headlines and nearly tanked her campaign. High-profile donors fled from Hyde-Smith, and several international corporations publicly demanded she return previous contributions.
The proposed rehab tour also meant doing some discreet behind-closed-doors clean-up work: Smoothing over her relationships with major corporate financial supporters, like Walmart, Pfizer, Leidos, Google, and Facebook — all companies that asked for tens of thousands of dollars combined in campaign donations back.
The recommendations from her advisors, like the refund requests from her donors, went ignored, the source said. Now two years later, those donors have not returned to the senator, who in turn has posted a historically poor fundraising performance in a 2020 U.S. Senate rematch with Espy, a high-profile and well-funded Democratic challenger.
Defenders of Hyde-Smith, whose campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article, say her atrocious fundraising means little, and that a Republican will never lose in Mississippi, especially with President Donald Trump on the ballot.
Yet others acknowledge privately that the race is much closer than it should be, and it is precisely because Hyde-Smith has not put behind her the national controversy that erupted after her 2018 comments about being front and center at a “public hanging.”
“She is sort of sleepwalking through this campaign,” said Stuart Stevens, a Mississippi native who managed Republican Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, is a senior adviser to the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, and is supporting Espy. “An incumbent senator can raise a lot of money if they want to. This is just a case where she doesn’t want to and isn’t investing the time to do it. I don’t think it’s complicated, I just don’t think she’s putting in the work.”
Historically low fundraising
Whether the reason is inattentiveness to her donors or ostracization from the Washington donor class, the numbers themselves are indisputable: Hyde-Smith is one of the worst incumbent senatorial fundraisers in modern history.
Hyde-Smith’s campaign has raised less than $3 million through the beginning of October, which amounts to less money raised during the 2020 campaign cycle than any sitting U.S. senator who isn’t retiring. The only senators who raised less have one foot out the door: Retiring Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming, Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, and Tom Udall, D-New Mexico.
One would have to travel back to the 1990s to find an incumbent senator who was in an even semi-competitive race who raised such a small amount of money, with the possible exception of Sen. John Walsh, D-Montana, who was appointed to the Senate in February 2014 but dropped out of that race after the Army War College revoked his Master’s degree following a plagiarism controversy. He had raised about as much money in his six months of campaigning as Hyde-Smith has raised through October of this year.
Though the companies that rebuked Hyde-Smith in 2018 have not made the same public displays of their disdain for her this year, their absence from her fundraising ledger is striking. So is the absence of key donors who kept quiet during the controversy, but have spoken out about racial justice since, particularly after the killing of George Floyd, according to a Mississippi Today analysis of Hyde-Smith’s campaign fundraising records filed with the Federal Election Commission.
The lack of investment from those companies is made even more conspicuous by the fact that they have hardly turned off the cash spigot to other candidates. Though none of the corporations who initially supported but then publicly denounced Hyde-Smith in 2018 took the extraordinary step of backing Espy over the sitting senator who is still considered the favorite, they have continued to infuse the state with political money elsewhere.
For instance, Walmart’s political action committee gave $4,000 to Hyde-Smith’s campaign in 2018, but hasn’t given a cent to her since the company replied to a tweet by actress Debra Messing that Hyde-Smith’s 2018 comments “do not reflect the values of our company and associates.”
Meanwhile, the mega-corporation’s PAC has donated to several other candidates in Mississippi this cycle. That includes $5,000 to the only Democratic congressman in the state, Rep. Bennie Thompson; $5,000 to Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, who is not up for reelection until 2023; and, even though he’s not up for reelection until 2024, a few thousand to Sen. Roger Wicker’s political action committee, Responsibility and Freedom Work PAC, or RFW PAC.
Walmart, the largest private employer in Mississippi, gave more money to a slew of local candidates ranging from Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Attorney General Lynn Fitch to several state senators and representatives including Sen. Walter Michel, a Republican, and Democrats such as Sen. Angela Turner-Ford and Rep. Abe Marshall Hudson Jr.
The same goes for scientific research company Leidos, which gave the maximum donation of $10,000 to Hyde-Smith in 2018, before calling Hyde-Smith’s comments “offensive and an affront to everything we stand for as a company.” Leidos, which has a major research and development hub on the Gulf Coast, has not given to her this year, however it has given thousands of dollars through its PAC to every other Mississippian in Congress this election cycle. Wicker took in $2,000 to his campaign committee designated for his 2024 primary and another $2,500 for his PAC. The company gave $10,000 to GOP Reps. Steven Palazzo and Trent Kelly as well as Thompson, and another $5,000 to Palazzo’s Patriot Political Action Committee.
Union Pacific also maxxed out to Hyde-Smith in 2018, but gave zilch for her 2020 reelection race. They gave $10,000 to Wicker’s PAC instead. The railroad company also gave $5,000 to Thompson and smaller amounts to Palazzo and Kelly.
Telecommunications giant AT&T gave $5,000 to Hyde-Smith last time, but has sat on the sidelines during this race. They gave the maximum $10,000 donation to Wicker’s PAC this year, and another $5,000 to his campaign committee.
The PAC representing the global professional services firm Ernst & Young gave the maximum donation to Hyde-Smith in 2018, but nothing this year. They gave the maximum to Palazzo this year and also donated to GOP Rep. Michael Guest and Thompson.
The pharmaceutical giant Pfizer also donated nothing to Hyde-Smith this year after having given $5,000 last time. Same goes for biotechnology company Amgen, which gave a few thousand last year. Both companies donated to Thompson this year, but have not donated to any other candidates in the state.
Facebook asked for its $2,500 PAC donation back from Hyde-Smith in 2018. This year it has only given $2,500 to Wicker’s campaign committee. Google’s PAC gave Hyde-Smith $5,000 last cycle. This year it has only donated to Wicker and Thompson. Major League Baseball’s PAC gave $5,000 to Hyde-Smith in 2018 and the manufacturer Boston Scientific gave $2,500. This year, neither company has donated to any candidates in Mississippi.
Individual donors also stopped giving
Marvin P. King, Jr., a political science professor at the University of Mississippi, agreed that her 2018 comment is still casting a long shadow — along with another controversy surrounding a photo she posted on Facebook in 2014 wearing a Confederate soldier’s hat and calling the Biloxi-based Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library, “Mississippi history at its best!”
Donations to Hyde-Smith may seem out of step with companies’ public statements in support of ending racial inequality in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. That killing reverberated so widely that it lent momentum in Mississippi to a push to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag. Some of those companies were instrumental in pushing the state Legislature to finally make a change, like Walmart, which announced it would stop selling Mississippi-flag branded merchandise under pressure from their consumers and stockholders.
The companies “might be trying to make a point, and I’m sure she will receive that point loud and clear,” King said. “They asked for their money back, she didn’t give the money back. But then this time around, some of those big companies are like, ‘All right, money that we would have given to Cindy Hyde-Smith, we’re going to give to another campaign this year.’”
Other high-profile individual donors who emptied their pockets to Hyde-Smith in 2018 have not given again this year, despite not having disavowed Hyde-Smith for her comments at the time, but having later expressed support for the movement to end racial inequality.
That includes John Hairston, the President and CEO of Gulfport-based Hancock Whitney bank, who has been a vocal proponent of changing the state flag. He gave the maximum allowable personal donation to Hyde-Smith in 2018, but has given nothing this year. He declined a request for comment through a spokesman.
The list also includes GOP mega-donor Steve Schwarzman, CEO of the Manhattan private equity firm, the Blackstone Group. He donated to Hyde-Smith in 2018, including a donation made just days after the “public hanging” comments became public.
But despite giving millions of dollars this cycle to other Republican candidates and political action committees, he has not donated to Hyde-Smith. In June, after the Floyd killing, Scwarzman put out a statement noting “zero tolerance for racism of any kind” at his firm. He did not respond to a request for comment through a company spokesman.
BGR Group, the lobbying and communications firm founded by former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, gave more than $7,000 through its PAC to Hyde-Smith last election. This year, the PAC has not donated to her, although Barbour himself has donated individually, as have several members of his politically active family.
But Barbour, in an interview, said that had nothing to do with her comments.
“It’s more because we haven’t been asked,” Barbour said. “I just don’t think they have pushed as hard to raise money.”
Will fundraising even matter?
Ultimately it may be that simple: Perhaps Hyde-Smith’s team believes she’ll win the race no matter what, so fundraising isn’t a priority. Although Barbour acknowledged Espy is running an admirable race, he said he still thinks Hyde-Smith is a shoo-in because no amount of money could convince conservative Mississippi to elect a Democrat statewide.
That hasn’t stopped Espy from trying. He has outspent Hyde-Smith 5-to-1 in the state, outraised her 3-to-1 overall, and outraised her a stunning 45-to-1 during the final stretch, when he raised almost $4 million to her less than $85,000 over the first two weeks of October. At the end of the last FEC filing period, Hyde-Smith had less than $400,000 in the bank, while Espy had nearly $4 million.
Still, some of the fundraising shortfall might owe to the fact that national Republicans are playing defense in many more states than they were in 2018, when Hyde-Smith first beat Espy in a 2018 special election and then a runoff after she was appointed to the seat earlier that year following the retirement of longtime Sen. Thad Cochran. Put short, there is just less money to go around for the GOP.
In the Southeast alone, the party is trying to win back a seat in Alabama and is defending two competitive seats in Georgia, another in South Carolina and one more in North Carolina. That’s not to speak of the nailbiter races incumbent Republican senators are in danger of losing from Arizona to Maine.
On the other hand, the party just might not think Mississippi is a state it will ever lose. Hyde-Smith’s top funder in 2018 was the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which gave her close to $50,000 and spent upwards of $2 million in independent expenditures either supporting Hyde-Smith or slamming Espy. This year, the national party has not given her anything, and has only spent less than $3,000 on her behalf.
And Hyde-Smith has deliberately forgone events that could typically line a candidate’s pocket, like a debate, town halls or other campaign soirees. Although Trump endorsed her, he’s too busy campaigning in other must-win states to set foot in GOP-friendly Mississippi. Still, there are some signs Hyde-Smith is watching her back: The campaign has gone on the offensive over the last few weeks of the campaign, dropping advertisements tying Espy to national Democratic Party leaders.
Hyde-Smith also had the support of a well-funded Super PAC last year, not just defending her against Espy but attacking the other Republican, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who ran in the four-way jungle primary that preceded the runoff.
The Mississippi Victory Fund alone raised close to half as much as Hyde-Smith has raised this cycle. Big donors included casino magnate and GOP mega-donor Steve Wynn, Boston Celtics part owner Rob Hale, Home Depot founder Bernard Marcus, and Facebook founder Sean Parker, who gave $250,000 alone. But this year, only a single donor who gave more than $25,000 to the Super PAC in 2018 has given any money to Hyde-Smith’s 2020 campaign: John Nau, CEO of the beer merchandiser, Silver Eagle Distributors.
Henry Barbour, Haley Barbour’s nephew and the Republican National Committee representative from Mississippi, helped manage the Super PAC. Though he personally donated to Hyde-Smith’s campaign this cycle, he said he decided there wasn’t much need for his fundraising services this time around. As for all the donors giving to Espy, he’s happy they’re taking a diversion in the South.
“I just really figured there’s no reason to even set up a Super PAC this time, you know. She should be fine,” he said. “I hate to tell all those liberal donors, but you know, they just wasted their money. They’re gonna lose. But I mean, I’d rather they spend it in Mississippi than Wisconsin or North Carolina or Pennsylvania.”
Daniel Newhauser is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, National Journal, Politico, Roll Call, VICE News and several other publications. He can be found on Twitter @dnewhauser.