Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, listen as a reporter asks a question Thursday at Georgia Blue restaurant in Madison. Blackburn joined Hyde-Smith for campaigning in the Jackson metro on Thursday.

PEARL — Democrat Mike Espy is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in the final days of the U.S. Senate race to argue that Republican incumbent Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith is ineffective in Washington.

Espy, who faces Hyde-Smith in the Nov. 3 election, is blasting that message in television ads airing across the state, and he’s focusing on that line in campaign events as he continues a bus tour of the state less than a week before Election Day.

“Cindy Hyde-Smith’s ineffectiveness as a United States Senator has real consequences for Mississippians,” Espy wrote in a fundraising email on Wednesday. “This so-called senator hasn’t even done the bare minimum of improving our public schools or fixing our roads. In fact, she’s done so little in office, she’s been rated the least-effective senator in Washington… .” 

Hyde-Smith shrugged off that criticism on Thursday.

“Haters are just going to hate. That is just noise,” Hyde-Smith told reporters on Thursday in Pearl. “Mississippi is in a great place.”

Hyde-Smith’s effectiveness as a senator has been a constant theme of the 2020 Senate race. Espy’s campaign has dwelled on the “least effective senator in Washington” rating published by the Center for Effective Lawmaking, which is jointly run by the University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University.

The nonpartisan center, which assesses how successful senators are at moving their agenda items through each of five stages in the legislative process, ranks Hyde-Smith as the least effective Republican senator in the nation. By contrast, the center ranks Roger Wicker, Mississippi’s senior senator, as the ninth most effective Republican senator.

Hyde-Smith has not passed a single bill since she was appointed to the Senate to replace Sen. Thad Cochran, who retired in April 2018 for health reasons.

At a campaign event on Thursday, Hyde-Smith was asked about Espy’s knocks on her effectiveness. She said that the first bill she offered in the Senate — to extend duck hunting season in Mississippi — was signed into law by the president. But the extension of duck hunting season was one of dozens of provisions in a larger bill that she did not author.

Hyde-Smith said as a member of the Senate Appropriations and Agriculture committees, she’d worked on programs for Mississippi from shipbuilding on the Gulf Coast to expanding rural broadband to helping rural healthcare.

Espy, meanwhile, has focused this year on the need to expand rural broadband in the state and to expand Medicaid to provide healthcare for the working poor and save rural hospitals — many of which are on the verge of bankruptcy.

READ MORE: Where do the Mississippi U.S. Senate candidates stand on the issues?

Espy surrogates and supporters have latched onto that “ineffective” narrative in recent weeks. In mid-October, The Lincoln Project, a national super PAC run by Republican political operatives, released an ad highlighting Hyde-Smith’s ineffectiveness.

“Mississippi is a small state, and we must have strong senators to fight for us,” the ad’s narrator says. “Cindy Hyde-Smith is weak. She’s done nothing. Invisible. Ineffective.”

Espy has cited instances of her dressing up in Confederate garb and her comments about being willing to attend a public hanging as instances when he said she had hurt the state’s reputation.

In recent weeks, during the few times Hyde-Smith has made herself available to answer topical questions about issues facing Mississippians, she has often pivoted to red-meat Republican talking points. For instance, Jackson television station WAPT asked her this week about how she would foster racial harmony in Mississippi.

“We worked very hard now and in the future that we can come together because everybody wants a safe Mississippi, everybody wants their First Amendment rights protected,” Hyde-Smith said in response to the question. “And we have to continue on that path to work together to strengthen the military. That also improves the security. And, uh, that is one of my top priorities is to make sure that we support our veterans, strengthen that military, that we get to the position that we truly have peace through strength.”

At a campaign event in Oxford on Thursday evening, Espy took time to respond to Hyde-Smith’s “haters are just going to hate” rebuttal to his critiques of her effectiveness.

“My momma raised me right. I don’t hate anyone,” Espy said to the large crowd of supporters. “But you know what, I know she doesn’t need to be senator. I want a Mississippi that’s unified, a Mississippi that’s less divisive, a Mississippi that goes forward.

“I don’t hate her,” Espy continued. “I just think she needs to go.”

On Thursday, Hyde-Smith touted her pride on being part of “the team” with President Donald Trump as she ramped up her campaigning in advance of Tuesday’s general election.

Hyde-Smith spoke in person Thursday at the Mississippi Economic Council’s annual Hobnob event, which is touted as an opportunity for the business community to hear from the state’s elected leadership. Espy, who is on a bus tour of the state this week, spoke via video at the event, as did some of the other politicians. The event, held at Trustmark Park in Pearl, was seen via live streaming. There was no attendees because of COVID-19 other than MEC staff and a handful of other support personnel.

“I don’t get caught up in a lot of the drama on Capitol Hill,” Hyde-Smith told the virtual audience. “I am focused completely on my work for you.”

Hyde-Smith defeated Espy, the former secretary of agriculture, in a November 2018 special election after being appointed to the post in April 2018 to replace Cochran. She is facing Espy again this year for as full six-year term.

“Cindy Hyde-Smith says she loves Mississippi,” Espy said during his video speech. “I believe she does. But I think she loves the old Mississippi. She is holding us back.”

Hyde-Smith also made campaign stops in Jackson suburbs on Thursday, while Espy campaigned in north Mississippi. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Republican but Jones County native, held a joint press availability with Hyde-Smith at a Madison restaurant on Thursday.

The two Republicans were peppered with questions on the lack of an agreement on another COVID-19 economic relief package. They blamed Democrats for the failure, saying they did not want to pass anything before the election to keep the issue alive for the campaign. 

Holding up two fingers, Hyde-Smith said Senate Republicans voted twice for relief packages that were killed by Senate Democrats. She did not mention that Senate Republicans would not take up packages approved by House Democrats.

Blackburn said the Republicans were not going to pass a bill, as the Democrats wanted “to bail out” blue or Democratic states that were poorly run. When reporters pointed out Mississippi received more federal funds than its citizens paid in tax dollars, she responded, “Well, good for you.” Blackburn said that was not true for Tennessee.

Hyde-Smith stressed that the state and nation are making progress in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic but much more work needs to be done. While she praised Trump, as she often does, she would not comment on boasts from the White House that the president had ended the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I can’t speak for the president,” she said. “I just know we still need help.”

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.

Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.