Senate 2020: In Mississippi, a Surprisingly Close Race For a Trump-Tied Promoter of Fossil Fuels

The deep-red state is dealing with flooding, drought and hurricanes, but neither candidate has made climate change a priority.

Oct 20, 2020
Epsy v. Hyde-Smith. Credit: Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images; Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

Democrat and former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy (left) is running against Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) to represent Mississippi in the Senate. Credit: Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images; Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

This story is part of a series focusing on climate change in key Senate races on the ballot in November.

At a Glance:

  • Incumbent Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, a Republican, has tied her fortunes to President Donald Trump and his pro-fossil fuel policies and deregulatory agenda.

  • Nearly 20 years ago, Mike Espy, a Democrat, was the first African American to serve as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. He raised concerns about climate change in several Twitter posts in 2019 and early 2020.

  • Mississippi adults lag behind their counterparts in other states in recognizing that human activity causes global warming, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

 

Epsy v. Hyde-Smith

Given how much Mississippi has to lose from rising seas, more dangerous  hurricanes, flooding and drought, climate change might reasonably be a  top voting issue.

But in this Gulf Coast state that borders on the lower reaches of the Mississippi River, neither of the two major party candidates vying to represent Mississippi in the U.S. Senate—incumbent Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, a Republican, and Mike Espy, a Democrat—are making climate change a priority in their campaigns. And that's despite this year's record-setting hurricane season that has threatened Mississippi but so far left it largely unscathed.

"I don't think there is enough awareness of the issue to vote for a candidate on this issue," said Chris Werle, of Hattiesburg, the Mississippi state coordinator for the Citizens Climate Lobby, a nonpartisan national organization working for action to fight global warming, "although the impacts are great."

With control of the Senate hanging in the balance and polling suggesting that the Mississippi Senate race may be close, there is a sense of urgency in the late stages of the campaign. In a Republican state in the deep South, Espy faces a double challenge of being both African American and a Democrat running for a statewide office.

The national Democratic Party and the Lincoln Project—run by disaffected Republicans trying to unseat Trump—both recently decided to help Espy's campaign, according to Mississippi Today, an independent newsroom that is closely covering the race. 

As the election draws closer, Democrats appear to be doing better across the nation, even in Mississippi, said Marvin King, a political science professor at the University of Mississippi.

"The map for the Democrats seems to expand every day,"  he said.

In Mississippi, King said, Hyde-Smith is not seen as a "particularly strong and dynamic candidate," so the national Democratic Party "sees blood in the water.

"A media dollar goes farther here than in other places," he said, so Democrats are likely to be saying, "Hey, shoot, you might get an upset."

King and Miles Armaly, a political science professor at the University of Mississippi, agree that Hyde-Smith has a built-in edge.

Mississippi voters are among the least likely in the nation to change their political allegiances, Armaly said. "In other words, Republicans just don't vote for Democrats in Mississippi," he added.

A Fondness for the Confederacy

Mississippi hasn't been represented by a Democrat in the Senate in 32 years. And the state hasn't elected a Black candidate to statewide office in more than a century, even though Mississippi has the highest percentage of African American voters in the nation, at about 38 percent.

Hyde-Smith, 61, was appointed to the Senate in early 2018, and defeated Espy that fall in a special election by about 68,000 votes—or about 8 percentage points—despite having made controversial comments about public hangings in a state with a history of racist lynchings. Hyde-Smith also has a history of showing pride in the Confederacy. In 2014, she posted a photo of herself on Facebook wearing a Confederate soldier's hat and holding a rifle under the caption "Mississippi history at its best!"

The state only this year retired its flag with the Confederate battle emblem; voters are being asked to approve a new design in the general election.

The Money Race: Mississippi

Espy, 66, has broken racial barriers before. He was the only Black student at a newly integrated Mississippi high school. And in 1986, he became the first Black Mississippian to win a seat in the House of Representatives in more than 100 years. In 1993, President Bill Clinton named him Agriculture Secretary, the first Black appointee to serve in the post.

Hyde-Smith, whose family raises beef cattle, has been loyal to President Trump, who carried the state by 18 percentage points in 2016. She campaigned on opposing abortion, helping farmers and small businesses and gun rights, and during the campaign took target practice at a shooting range with the media present. She has voted in line with the president 95 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight, which tracks that political metric.

Hyde-Smith's has kept a low public profile during the campaign, mostly meeting privately with groups that support her, King said. 

Espy, an attorney, has made access to health care and fighting the coronavirus key priorities, while trying to turn Hyde-Smith's backing of the president into a liability by calling her a Trump "sycophant." 

King said that Espy's focus on the coronavirus makes sense because African Americans have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic, and Espy needs a high turnout among Black voters. The state's overall Covid-19 death rate was, in mid October, the sixth highest in the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Plus, King said, with the coronavirus, "Everyone understands how this issue has affected their lives. You don't have to explain it to anyone."

Climate, he said, registers farther down the list of priorities.

Opinion mapping by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication  shows that a majority of adults in the state accept that climate change is mostly caused by human activity and that Congress should take action, although at a percentage that is lower than that for Americans as a whole.

Mississippi voters are also likely to be aware that control of the Senate is at stake, and that their votes could help decide whether the Senate is run by a Republican from Kentucky or a Democrat from New York. With climate, it boils down to this: A Senate controlled by Democrats would put in charge a party that has promised to do something about climate change, including to work toward net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

A Lackluster Showing on Climate Change

Neither Espy nor Hyde-Smith returned requests for interviews.

The campaign website for Hyde-Smith is silent on climate change. It says that she sees dependence on foreign oil as risky for the United States and that she "supports responsible exploration and production of Mississippi's and the nation's energy resources, including biofuels."

Her League of Conservation Voters score since taking office—a measure of candidates' voting records on environmental issues—is 19 percent. The league gave her credit for a vote to remove provisions in a major 2018 farm bill that the league said would have jeopardized clean water, cut money from conservation programs, reduced protections for endangered species and undercut environmental laws.

Espy, when he served in Congress, had a league score of 40 percent, low for a Democrat these days. 

The league observed that, in advance of the landmark Earth Summit of 1992, Espy declined to be a co-sponsor of the 1992 Global Climate Protection Act, which called for a stabilization of carbon dioxide emissions by January 1, 2020. The bill never went anywhere.

Last year and through this past spring, however, Espy took to Twitter to share news reports about climate disasters and call for action.

"We've spent enough time debating whether or not climate change exists," he said in one tweet. "Everyone from Mississippi's farmers to New York's city dwellers are feeling the devastating effects of the climate crisis. It's time to act." 

Another mentioned three ways that climate change was affecting Mississippi: heat, floods, and hurricanes. "Climate change is real. We must act," the tweet said.

The Takeaway:

For Espy to win, he needs a coalition of African-Americans, college educated whites and white women who have fled the Republican Party under President Trump, said the University of Mississippi's Armaly. King added that, in all, Espy may need as much as 20 percent of the white vote to win.

But that is a tall order with Trump holding a steady double-digit lead in the polls over former Vice President Joe Biden in Mississippi. Hyde-Smith may well be able to ride the president's coattails to victory even if Trump loses the White House. But if it turns out to be a wave election across the country, there could be some surprising results—maybe even in Mississippi.

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