Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith’s (R-Miss.) bid to permanently replace retired senator Thad Cochran depends on winning a runoff contest against Democrat Mike Espy in a week’s time. What would seem to be a layup for the Republican Party — a Republican running in a special election in a deep-red state — has become complicated by a series of controversies into which Hyde-Smith has stumbled.
First, she was recorded making a joke about being willing to be in the front row at a public hanging, a comment that is particularly ill-advised given Mississippi’s history with lynching and that Hyde-Smith is running against a black man. Then she was recorded suggesting that it was a “great idea” to make it harder for liberals to vote, again stumbling over a fraught subject, given concerns about the suppression of votes in Georgia and Florida, particularly black voters.
On Monday, a Twitter user posted an image of a 2014 Facebook post showing Hyde-Smith wearing a hat typical of Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Her visit to the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library in Biloxi, she wrote, was “Mississippi history at its best!”
In the context of modern politics and this election cycle, such a photo seems problematic for a candidate. Coming after Hyde-Smith’s other problems — which have Republicans increasingly worried about her viability — it seems particularly challenging.
That may not be the case. A casual embrace of the Confederacy certainly wouldn’t play that well in, say, Massachusetts. But how problematic is it in the Deep South?
Over the past 12 months, it’s primarily Southern states that have shown the most interest in the Confederacy in Google searches. The state that showed the least relative search interest in the subject (save Hawaii) was New York. The state that was most interested in it? Mississippi.
That’s a sort of abstract metric. We have data from a 2015 Post-ABC News poll that provides a bit more explicit insight into views of Confederate iconography. At that point, with a national debate roiling over the display of the Confederate flag after the racist massacre of nine black parishioners at a church in Charleston, S.C., we asked Americans whether displays of the flag should be allowed on public property. In the Northeast, most people supported a ban on their display. In the West, responses were about mixed.
In the South — and only in the South — was there more opposition to a ban than support.
That massacre spurred a broad reexamination of Confederate monuments nationally, with several states removing statues and flags that had been erected — mostly in the Civil Rights era — to pay tribute to the rebellious South.
As The Washington Post’s Chris Ingraham wrote in June, though, Mississippi removed only two of its 149 monuments, one of the lowest removal rates in the country.
None of those data points is conclusive, certainly, but it does suggest that an embrace of the Confederacy in the South broadly and Mississippi in particular may not be disqualifying.
Interestingly, a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center found that the gulf in opinion on removing the Confederate battle flag from public places was wider between Democrats and Republicans than between white and black Americans.
Most Americans had little reaction, positive or negative, to the display of the Confederate battle flag, though the percentage of white Americans who expressed a positive reaction to seeing the Confederate battle flag displayed had doubled from 8 percent to 16 percent from 2011 to 2015.
Last year, President Trump tried to soften the political fallout of his response to the killing of a woman protesting racism in Charlottesville by claiming that the demonstration where she died was primarily about the removal of Confederate monuments and not about the white nationalism embraced by many of those at the original protest. That was a much more tenable position, with even Democrats split on the removal of Confederate monuments, according to NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist polling.
That’s nationally, not just in the Southern states where the Confederacy actually existed. (The same poll found that Republicans were only slightly more likely to say they mostly disagreed with the beliefs of white nationalists as with the beliefs of the Black Lives Matter movement.)
It’s hard to say categorically, given the data above, what reaction the photo of Hyde-Smith must spur in Mississippi. It seems safe to argue, though, that the reaction might be relatively muted.
Or that it at least would have been if it were the first problematic thing to emerge.