White Mississippians Will Vote for Hyde-Smith To Defend The State’s Honor

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Mike Espy (Courtland Wells/AP)

The Washington Post reports that Democrats may have a chance in the Mississippi Senate election after all:

A U.S. Senate runoff that was supposed to provide an easy Republican win has turned into an unexpectedly competitive contest, driving Republicans and Democrats to pour in resources and prompting a planned visit by President Trump to boost his party’s faltering candidate.

Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith stumbled recently when, in praise of a supporter, she spoke of her willingness to sit in the front row of a public hanging if he invited her — words that, in the South, evoked images of lynchings. She has struggled to grapple with the fallout, baffling members of her party and causing even faithful Republicans to consider voting for her opponent, former congressman Mike Espy.

That Espy is attempting to become the state’s first black senator since shortly after the Civil War made her remarks all the more glaring. It has positioned him to take advantage not only of a substantial black turnout but of a potential swell of crossover support from those put off by Hyde-Smith’s campaign.”

Count me skeptical, and not just because Trump voters seem unlikely to have moral qualms about becoming Hyde-Smith voters. Espy’s best chance to win was an improbable threading of the needle in which he somehow energized black voters while nobody else noticed. But Hyde-Smith’s comments have people paying attention, and that’s probably bad news for Espy.

To understand why it’s bad news, we have to understand how a jealous regard for Mississippi’s image is a potent political force in the state. For generations, white Mississippians have resented the way their state is portrayed in national media. They have sought to defend Mississippi’s reputation against what they see as a spurious caricature: racist, backward, ignorant.

In the American imagination, it seems that it’s always the summer of 1964 in Mississippi. Corrupt sherrifs with their thick southern drawl, hot sticky air, fields of cotton, the shacks of the poor, the threat of violence just under the surface. For their part, many white Mississippians insist the state has changed and that the past should be left alone.

There is something to be said for the idea that America writ large, in seeking to claim innocence that it does not in fact possess, needs Mississippi, its supposed antecedent. Maybe we do look down at Mississippi so we don’t have to look at ourselves. But whether or not Mississippi gets a raw deal in the national imagination, white Mississippians’ perception that outsiders do not understand the state (at best) or hypocritically slander it (at worst) is politically potent.

The recent developments in the Senate campaign are likely to awaken that powerful political force. A black man and a white woman are running for Senate in Mississippi, and suddenly the national media is talking about lynching. The President of the NAACP is denouncing the Republican candidate. Prominent black Democrats are coming to the state to campaign. All of these factors will probably fuel white Mississippians concerns that Mississippi is again being treated unfairly. They won’t vote for the black candidate who is allied with those critical outsiders. They’ll vote for the white candidate who embodies a state unfairly maligned.

There is also an absence of historical context in the way some media reports are describing the Democrats’ underdog status in Mississippi. The Post notes, for example, that Mississippi hasn’t elected a Democratic Senator since 1982. It fails to inform its readers that that Senator was a white supremacist! This additional context tells us something about the dramatic partisan realignment of the South and of the transformation of the Democratic Party. It also underscores the scale of the Democrats’ task. A modern Democrat has never represented Mississippi in the U.S. Senate. That’s unlikely to change any time soon.

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