Senate candidates in Mississippi agree to debate

JACKSON, Miss. — The two candidates in a special U.S. Senate race in Mississippi have agreed to their only debate of the campaign season.

Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation spokesman Jon Kalahar says representatives for Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democratic challenger Mike Espy agreed Tuesday to terms and conditions.

The one-hour debate is set for the evening of Nov. 20 in Jackson and will be on television and radio. The federation and WLBT-TV are sponsoring it.

Democrats eye US Senate seat in Republican-led Mississippi

National Democrats are focusing on Mississippi’s U.S. Senate runoff, a year after winning a longshot contest in another Deep South state dominated by Republicans.

Democrat Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore in Alabama last December after Moore was hit by accusations of sexual misconduct.

Now in Mississippi, Espy is challengingHyde-Smith. She faces sharp criticism for a video that surfaced Sunday of her praising a supporter at a Nov. 2 campaign event in Tupelo by saying: “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”

Hyde-Smith said the hanging phrase was “an exaggerated expression of regard” for the person who invited her to speak. She also said it is “ridiculous” to think the phrase has a negative connotation.

Democratic consultant Joe Trippi retweeted the video of Hyde-Smith with the comment “incredible” and a request for people to donate to Espy.

Trippi, who is working for Espy, has been on several high-profile campaigns, including Jones’ in 2017. He told The Associated Press on Tuesday that Hyde-Smith’s verbal gaffe shows she is a weak candidate.

“She just doesn’t seem to be ready for prime time,” Trippi said.

Democrats’ national Senate campaign arm is assisting in Mississippi, though officials were hesitant to elaborate about how or the extent to which the group was spending money on Espy’s behalf.

“It’s a Mississippi race run by Mississippians,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee senior adviser Ben Ray said Tuesday. “We want them to succeed.”

Hyde-Smith was in her second term as Mississippi agriculture commissioner when Republican Gov. Phil Bryant appointed her to temporarily succeed longtime Sen. Thad Cochran, who retired amid health concerns in April. The winner of the Nov. 27 runoff will serve the final two years of the six-year term Cochran started.

Hyde-Smith and Espy each received about 41 percent in a four-person race Nov. 6 to advance to the runoff.

“Finishing literally in a dead heat with her helped some people understand Mike Espy really does have a shot,” Trippi said.

Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who led the Republican National Committee in the mid-1990s, is raising money for a super PAC supporting Hyde-Smith. He said Tuesday that she is a reliable vote for President Donald Trump and Espy would not be.

Barbour said it’s important for Hyde-Smith to pick up votes from people who supported Chris McDaniel, a tea party-backed Republican state lawmaker who received about 16 percent and placed third last week.

“Most of the McDaniel people thought McDaniel was more conservative than Cindy Hyde-Smith and they see what Doug Jones has done in Alabama and they have no reason to believe that this wouldn’t be the exact result in Mississippi if we elected a Democrat,” Barbour told AP. “I think those people will vote and when they vote, they will vote for Cindy Hyde-Smith.”