Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democrat Mike Espy Trudge Through Mississippi Senate Runoff Debate

Appointed U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., right, and Democrat Mike Espy shake hands following their televised Mississippi U.S. Senate debate in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, Pool)
AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, Pool

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) and Democrat challenger Mike Espy faced off on Tuesday night in the only debate in advance of next week’s runoff election to determine who will serve the remaining two years in former Sen. Thad Cochran’s (R-MS) term in the United States Senate.

Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith to the position in April when Cochran resigned for health reasons. Neither Hyde-Smith nor Espy secured the necessary 50 percent of the votes needed to win the seat outright in the November 6 general election, forcing the two into next Tuesday’s November 27 runoff.

The Clarion Ledger captured the sentiment of many who watched the heavily hyped televised debate, calling it “a lackluster affair” in which “neither candidate was able to break through on any single issue or message.”

Each candidate spent much of the evening on the defensive, attempting to explain past conduct or recent remarks.

Hyde-Smith offered a partial apology for her awkward remarks on the campaign trail when she said she would attend a “public hanging” if invited to it by one of her supporters. Democrats and Espy have attempted to portray those remarks as racially insensitive given the state’s history of lynchings.

Espy, for his part, offered a less than compelling explanation for his acceptance of $750,000 in payments in 2011 from an Ivory Coast government trade group controlled by former dictator Laurent Gbagbo, who is now on trial for crimes against humanity.

As Breitbart News reported, the Cocoa and Coffee Board of Ivory Coast paid Espy $750,000, even though he told the Hill in March 2011 that he had only received $400,000 and canceled the contract as soon as he learned the extent of Gbagbo’s human rights violations.

At Tuesday’s debate, Espy said he terminated the contract as soon as he learned “how bad the guy was.”

In fact, news of Gbagbo’s human rights violations broke in January 2011, shortly after Espy’s firm received a $400,000 payment. Espy, who runs the firm, did not end the contract until March 15, 2011, two weeks after receiving an additional payment of $350,000 on March 1, 2011.

The only substantive area of dispute in the debate revolved around health care, as the Ledger reported:

The candidates did often grapple over protections for pre-existing conditions. But on many questions they did not directly engage with each other or dig very far into policy issues. Hyde-Smith often appeared to be reading from her notes, and frequently quickly pivoted from the question to an unrelated talking point. Espy offered a more extemporaneous approach and rarely went on the offensive.

While Hyde-Smith focused on her “conservative values” and support from President Donald Trump — she reminded viewers twice of his Mississippi rallies scheduled for Monday — Espy touted his more moderate and experienced stances on several issues, saying his only loyalty is “Mississippi first” over any party or person.

Both Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) have campaigned in Mississippi with Espy in recent days.

President Trump will visit the state on Monday, where he will hold two rallies in support of Hyde-Smith, one in Tupelo and one in Biloxi.

Democrats are hoping to pull off an upset next Tuesday in a state President Trump won by 18 percent.

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