Cindy Hyde-Smith is a relic of the Jim Crow era

A Democratic win in Tuesday’s runoff election in Mississippi could limit the party’s 2018 Senate losses to 1 seat, and controversies swirling around the GOP candidate have changed the odds of that happening from highly improbable to conceivable.

The current Senate has a 51-49 GOP majority. On Nov. 6, the GOP won 4 Democratic seats, and the Democrats flipped 2 Republican seats. This is a Republican-held seat, and if the Democrats take it, the new Senate will have a GOP majority of 52-48 instead of 53-47, leaving President Trump a bit less wiggle room to confirm controversial appointees. This could prove significant as Trump is positioning himself for a major cabinet reshuffling. Equally importantly, limiting GOP gains in 2018 puts the Democrats in a better position to win Senate control in 2020.

The Mississippi seat opened earlier this year when an ailing elderly incumbent resigned. An interim Senator was appointed by the Republican governor pending a special election. She is Cindy Hyde-Smith, a party stalwart who worked her way up the GOP ranks in state-level offices. She won the GOP nomination and faces Mike Espy, a black man and veteran politician who was a congressman from Mississippi and then U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under President Bill Clinton. The special election was held on Nov. 6, but neither Hyde-Smith nor Espy got a majority of the vote, so there will be a runoff election on Nov. 27.

Hyde-Smith is a throwback to the pre-civil rights south. She attended a private school for whites known as a “segregation academy” (read story here); in the school yearbook, called “The Rebel,” she posed with other cheerleaders under the blurb, “Cheerleaders Yell Rebels to Victory” (here). She has praised the Confederate cause and soldiers (here and here), seems to approve of Mississippi’s lynching past (here), and has called for preventing “liberal” college students from voting (here). The resulting backlash prompted major corporate donors, including WalMart and Union Pacific, to pull their contributions to her campaign.

One thing I couldn’t find on the internet was a photo of Hyde-Smith posing with black voters, even though she’s a politician and her state is 40% black.

Mississippi has a difficult civil rights history that still taints the state’s reputation, including the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers, the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers, and brutal police attacks against civil rights marchers. Today, Mississippi officials work hard to sell their state as a changed place. Hyde-Smith’s racist attitudes could undo their work. This may give pause to some folks who normally would support her.

However, recent polls show few Republican voters switching to Espy, and Trump — who is popular with the state’s white voters — plans to campaign there for Hyde-Smith on Monday to help turn out the GOP vote. Political experts say Espy’s chances ride on an exceptionally high turnout among black voters, an historically low-turnout group.

Mississippi is one of the poorest states. It consistently ranks in the bottom for income, education, and health care. It struggles to attract businesses and decent jobs. The last thing Mississippi needs is a U.S. Senator straight out of the Jim Crow era. In a couple days, we’ll find out if Mississippi voters are ready to enter the 21st century.

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