John Fund: Mississippi US Senate race features two problem-plagued candidates

The final U.S. Senate race of 2018 takes place Tuesday in Mississippi. It pits a gaffe-prone Republican who has inflamed racial tensions with a comment about a “public hanging” against a former member of President Clinton’s Cabinet with questionable ethics who accepted a $750,000 lobbying contract from an African despot accused of crimes against humanity.

The Republican is Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith. The Democrat is Mike Espy. One local wag says voters face a choice between “the evil of two lessers.”

Hyde-Smith was a Democrat until 2010, when she switched parties and was soon elected Mississippi’s agriculture commissioner as a Republican. Six months ago she was appointed to the U.S. Senate when 80-year-old Republican Sen. Thad Cochran retired due to poor health.

Hyde-Smith narrowly led Espy in a special election Nov. 6, but because no candidate won a majority in a three-candidate race a runoff is being held between her and second-place candidate Espy.

As the sitting Republican senator, Hyde-Smith would normally be a prohibitive favorite in a state that gave Donald Trump 58 percent of the vote in the 2016 presidential election. But this month the media have focused not on her Senate record, but on her gaffes.

Hyde-Smith insensitively said she would be “on the front row” if a close friend invited her to a “public hanging,” conjuring up the state’s horrific history of lynching black people during the Jim Crow era.

The senator apologized and insisted "there was no ill will whatsoever in my statement" and that her words had been “twisted.” But her words were enough to prompt Walmart, Aetna and AT&T to withdraw their financial support from her campaign.

Democrat Espy said Hyde-Smith’s “public hanging” comment has hurt Mississippi’s image: "It’s given our state another black eye that we don't need,” Espy said in the only debate between the two candidate

One local wag says voters face a choice between “the evil of two lessers.”

Espy added that the hanging comment and a photo of Hyde-Smith wearing a Confederate army cap brought up "stereotypes we don't need anymore."

But Republicans say that Espy is the ultimate stereotype of a shady Washington Beltway operator.

Once celebrated as the first black person elected to the U.S. House from Mississippi since Reconstruction, Espy’s reputation was tarnished when in 1997 he was indicted on charges of illegally accepting $35,000 worth of gifts in the form of sports tickets, lodging and airfare while serving as U.S. secretary of agriculture.

In late 1998 Espy was acquitted of all charges by a jury in Washington, with the only white juror insisting that race was not a factor in the deliberations. But even though jurors concluded prosecutors failed to show Espy took anything in exchange for an official act, President Clinton determined Espy’s judgment alone was enough to remove him from office.

Hyde-Smith contends that Espy’s poor judgment surfaced again in 2011, when he accepted a lucrative contract from the Ivory Coast. Fox News reported this month that Espy “cashed in $750,000 after lobbying on behalf of an African despot currently on trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.”

The crimes Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo is accused of including inciting murder, rape and other inhumane acts. Gbagbo contends he is not guilty of the charges.

Espy has claimed that he only accepted $400,000 of the money and dropped the contract when he learned more about excesses. But Fox News reported that not only did Espy collect the full $750,000, but that he only dropped the contract only 15 days before it as supposed to expire.

In their debate, Hyde-Smith attacked Espy for his work on behalf of Gbagbo.

Beyond the issues of race and ethics, the candidates have also clashed on some policy issues.

Espy claims that Hyde-Smith voted against a bill that would have barred insurers from selling what he claims are “junk insurance” to consumers. He says he supports pro-gun rights and opposes a single-payer health insurance plan.

Hyde-Smith counters by saying Espy’s ties to the Clintons prove he would just be another big-spending liberal once safely elected. “When he first served in Congress he was a liberal, he would vote the same way today,” she told supporters at a recent rally.

Hyde-Smith must still be considered the favorite in Tuesday’s vote, but recall that last year in Alabama Democrat Doug Jones stunned the political community when he won a Senate seat in a race against scandal-tarred Republican Roy Moore.

Crossover voters in Republican suburbs ignored President Trump’s appeals to vote for Moore and elected the state’s first Democratic senator since 1990.

But Mississippi isn’t likely to repeat the Alabama story. Hyde-Smith’s gaffes can’t be remotely compared to the last-minute allegations of sexual harassment of minors that were made against Moore.

Alabama Democrat Doug Jones had nothing as weighty as Espy’s steamer trunk of ethical lapses, Espy will need to win at least 25 to 30 percent of white voters to have a chance at an upset – something polls indicate is unlikely.

All this means that when President Trump flies into Mississippi for two rallies on Monday he’s doing so in the knowledge that he’s likely backing a winner.

And if Hyde-Smith indeed wins the next day you can expect the president to hog the lion’s share of the credit in true Trumpian fashion.