JACKSON Incumbent U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., has accepted an invitation Mississippi Farm Bureau to debate her runoff opponent, Democrat Mike Espy, on Nov. 20.
“Cindy looks forward to a robust debate about the major issues facing our state and country, and to outline the clear choice voters have in this important runoff election,” Hyde-Smith Communications Director Melissa Scallan said in a press release Thursday.
The Espy campaign had not yet made a decision about the debate as of mid-morning Thursday.
“She must have seen more than we have, because we haven’t seen any terms, conditions, or details of it other than the date,” Espy Communications Director Danny Blanton told the Jackson Free Press. “We’ve been talking to several other organizations that are also interested in sponsoring debates as well. We feel like we have plenty of opportunities to debate.”
The Espy campaign would like to participate in three debates between now and the Nov. 27 runoff, Blanton said. Hyde-Smith and Espy advanced to a runoff after Tuesday’s election, when Espy and Hyde-Smith earned the top two spots, with neither reaching the over-50-percent threshold necessary to avoid a runoff.
The Farm Bureau debate will be broadcast live on television and radio.
In Hyde-Smith’s press release, Scallan said the timing of the Farm Bureau debate would work well for the senator.
“With the U.S. Senate being in session for several days next week, and the Thanksgiving holiday taking place later this month, the proposed date of Nov. 20 is ideal for voters to have an opportunity to learn the clear differences between conservative Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith and liberal Democrat Mike Espy,” Scallan said.
With 98 percent of the Nov. 6 vote in as of Thursday, Hyde-Smith led Espy 42 to 41. Mississippi State Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, earned 16 percent of the vote. Results from Forrest County have yet to be reported.
Espy will have an uphill battle as Republicans are likely to re-unite before Hyde-Smith; McDaniel urged his supporters to support Hyde-Smith in his Tuesday night concession speech.
“Mr. Espy cannot be allowed to win the seat,” McDaniel said. “... We unite now under Trump’s umbrella. We unite now to fight for his party.”
Prior to the runoff, Hyde-Smith repeatedly declined to join Espy and McDaniel for a debate, citing scheduling conflicts and concerns that McDaniel’s supporters would be rude if a debate were open to the public. In a secretly filmed video, though, Hyde-Smith said she was refusing the debates on the advice of advisers who said agreeing to such a debate would be like handing McDaniel a $200,000 donation.
Trump endorsed Hyde-Smith in August and campaigned for her in north Mississippi in October. Throughout her campaign, her most-touted policy position has been her policy of voting with Trump 100 percent of the time.
Though Hyde-Smith is favored in the runoff, Espy hopes to win by staying the course.
“We’re going to stay with the same strategy that brought us here,” Blanton said. “We’re going to talk about access to affordable health care, fully funding public education, keeping rural hospitals from closing, developing infrastructure in the state that will attract industry, and providing solutions to those problems to make their lives better.”
Espy will need to keep up the energy the campaign saw on Nov. 6, he said, in order to win a runoff.
Oct. 2 marked 10 years since Mississippi voters last saw a debate among top-tier U.S. Senate candidates, when former Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove debated Republican Roger Wicker. Wicker won that race and is up for re-election in November when he faces a challenge from Democratic House Minority Leader David Baria.
No matter who wins, the Nov. 27 runoff will be historic. When Bryant appointed her, Hyde-Smith became the first woman from Mississippi to serve in Congress and could be the first duly elected come November. If Espy wins, he would be the first black U.S. senator from the state since Reconstruction, when Sens. Hiram Revels and Blanche K. Bruce represented the state in Washington, D.C., until the end of Reconstruction brought the disenfranchisement of black voters.
Around 900,000 Mississippians voted in Tuesday's elections—a midterm turnout record.
Mississippi voters will choose between Espy and Hyde-Smith in a Nov. 27 runoff. Anyone who registered to vote by Oct. 29 will be eligible to vote in the runoff, even if they could not vote in the Nov. 6 election. Polls are open in Mississippi from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Ashton Pittman covers politics and elections for the Jackson Free Press. Follow him on Twitter at @ashtonpittman. Email him at [email protected]. Read more 2018 campaign coverage at jfp.ms/2018elections.