Republican political strategists, anxious in 2018 that Democrat Mike Espy would defeat Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in a special election runoff for the Senate, recommended that President Donald Trump fly to Mississippi to campaign for the appointed senator.

Those election eve rallies — in Tupelo and Biloxi, two of the state’s critical GOP strongholds — ultimately shored up Hyde-Smith’s 7.5-point victory over Espy, the former congressman and U.S. secretary of agriculture.

Two years later, as Hyde-Smith again faces Espy in a Senate election for the full six-year term, the senator has received nothing more than a single supportive tweet from the president.

If Hyde-Smith wins on Tuesday night, it won’t be because she received help from a president or other national Republicans. It won’t be because she ran a methodical campaign, or because she articulated a message of change for Mississippians who have long suffered from the many problems that plague the state. She’d win because a majority of Mississippians are Republican in this most-polarized election.

Hyde-Smith’s 2020 campaign strategy has been one of hope — hope that her reliance on Trump’s popularity in Mississippi and red-meat Republican talking points will guide her to victory. She avoided tough questions on the campaign trail, and she spoke little about critical issues facing Mississippians. She refused to debate her opponent, and she received meager financial support.

This election’s penultimate question, begged through inaction by Hyde-Smith and GOP leaders: Can a Republican in a reliably red state still win an election without much campaigning, even against a formidable Democratic challenger?

Financial reports from the final days of the 2018 and 2020 elections perhaps best illustrate how little Hyde-Smith has done on the campaign trail this year.

Three weeks from the 2018 runoff, Hyde-Smith’s campaign had spent $3.4 million. Three weeks from the 2020 general election, Hyde-Smith’s campaign had spent just $2.6 million. That’s a decrease of 24%.

Three weeks from the 2018 runoff, Espy’s campaign had spent $2.2 million. Three weeks from the 2020 general election, Espy’s campaign had spent $6.4 million. That’s an increase of 190%. 

Gov. Phil Bryant, the historically popular Republican who appointed Hyde-Smith to the Senate, stumped hard for her in 2018 and helped raise in-state money through the Mississippi Republican Party apparatus.

This year, Gov. Tate Reeves, significantly less popular than Bryant, did virtually no campaigning or fundraising for Hyde-Smith. Several Republican operatives privately questioned the timing of Reeves — eight days from Election Day — hosting a $10,000-per-photo fundraiser for the state Republican Party as Hyde-Smith struggled to raise cash in the final stretch.

Two years ago, Hyde-Smith received millions in support from super PACs and independent groups, which flowed cash into Mississippi to ensure Hyde-Smith and Republicans retained their seat in the U.S. Senate.

This year, Hyde-Smith has none of that outside support.

“I just really figured there’s no reason to even set up a Super PAC this time, you know. She should be fine,” Henry Barbour, the national Republican strategist who helped steer millions to support Hyde-Smith in 2018, told Mississippi Today last week.

In 2018, Hyde-Smith benefitted from what former Republican Party Chairman Lucien Smith heralded as “the largest data-driven, get-out-the-vote effort we’ve ever had in Mississippi.” At least 15 full-time staffers knocked doors and made calls across the state for the senator, and during the three-week runoff, national Republican groups at least doubled that number of canvassers.

This year, Hyde-Smith’s campaign had a goal of hiring “six or seven” full-time field staffers, Hyde-Smith’s campaign manager Justin Brasell said earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Hyde-Smith’s Democratic opponent Espy has run one of the most expensive and robust campaigns in the state’s history.

Espy raised and spent just shy of $10 million, which is about $7 million more than Hyde-Smith this year. That total crushes previous records for any Democrat in Mississippi’s history, and, for reference, is almost twice what Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood raised and spent in his 2019 bid for governor.

His campaign staff, hoping to close the partisan gaps that have haunted modern Democrats since the early 2000s, deliberately dropped cash to target specific voters in specific parts of the state.

If Republican operatives were correct about their largest-ever field game for Hyde-Smith in 2018, Mississippi Democrats, led by strategist Jared Turner, easily topped it in 2020, building the largest data-driven, get-out-the-vote effort in the state’s history — for either side of the aisle.

The Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign, working on Espy’s behalf, placed paid canvassers in 52 of the state’s 82 counties for the final month of the race. For weeks, they’ve knocked doors, phone banked and aired television, radio and online advertisements.

Race has been central to this campaign during a national reckoning on racism in politics. Espy, a Black man who has already broken racial barriers in politics, faces a white incumbent who has continued to make questionable comments about race. As millions of Americans protested racial inequality and Trump continued to galvanize Black voters, Espy made race a central theme of his messaging this year. As a result, Democratic operatives believe more Black Mississippians will vote in 2020 than any year in the state’s history, including when President Barack Obama was on the ballot.

Espy maintains he needs the support of 22% of white Mississippi voters, so he targeted white women in suburban counties during the final stretch. He also spent many of his campaign’s final hours speaking to young voters. Across the nation, young voters, who always skew more Democratic, have voted early in record numbers.

To win, Espy needs record turnout, and he needs that broad coalition of support. 

Democrats say that regardless of outcome, Espy’s 2020 candidacy helped them build an infrastructure to succeed in future elections and showed them that the state’s political needle is moving toward center. They say that even a closer Espy loss than 2018 helps them make a clearer case to national Democrats for continued investment in the state.

While many Republican strategists are comfortable in 2020 banking on Mississippi voters being too conservative to elect a Democrat, some are suggesting that Hyde-Smith’s 2020 strategy has done long-term damage to the party.

“Campaigns and outcomes matter, but so do margins,” a veteran Mississippi Republican operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely, told Mississippi Today. “These things do have consequences. Cindy Hyde-Smith may get elected, but it’s very possible she’ll get elected with the lowest share of any Republican Senate candidate in the state’s modern history. She’ll be seen as weak and vulnerable in Washington. Her choice not to care at all about this race definitely hurts Republicans in Mississippi in the long run.”

Adam Ganucheau

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.