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Studio portrait of Sid Salter. (photo by Beth Wynn / © Mississippi State University)

In 2018, Mississippi voters elected two U.S. senators. The two elections saw about $27. 6 million expended with $11 million of that coming from partisan outside groups – and armed with that money, Mississippians witnessed the near destruction of the reputations of at least two of those candidates. 

First – at a price tag of some $7.7 million with about $600,000 in outside spending - there was the regular election Class I Senate seat up for grabs for a full six-year term that runs from 2019 to 2025 that was settled on Nov. 6 when incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker of Tupelo defeated Democratic nominee State Rep. David Baria of Bay St. Louis, Libertarian retired U.S. Navy diver Danny Bedwell of Columbus and Reform Party perennial candidate Shawn O’Hara of Hattiesburg. 

Wicker cruised to a 58.8 percent win with Baria taking 39.1 percent of the vote. At some point prior to the Nov. 6 general election in this race, O’Hara, 60, apparently died of natural causes in his Hattiesburg home but his passing was not discovered until Nov. 20. O’Hara won 5,541 votes or .63 percent of the vote. 

O’Hara was a character listening to a different drummer who turned a Prince Valiant haircut and a pair of Blues Brothers Ray Ban shades into trademarks of sorts. He was the poster child for a perennial political candidate. Over the last 25 years, he ran for multiple offices representing multiple parties and blowout losses never phased him. 

Wicker was expected to easily win re-election and he did, but it was as if he ran two races. Initially, due to the timing of former U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran’s retirement from the Senate, GOP State Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville initially announced that he would challenge Wicker. 

Republican President Donald Trump soon endorsed Wicker and a couple of weeks later, McDaniel walked that initial Wicker challenge back and settled on a challenge for the seat held by Cochran, which set up a $19.8 million Mississippi Class II U.S. Senate seat that was contested for a partial term that will end in 2021. Some $10.5 million in outside spending turned the special election into one of the dirtiest Mississippi campaigns since Bill Allain ran for governor in the 1980s.  

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant appointed then-Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith of Brookhaven to fill Sen. Cochran’s unexpired term. Cochran stepped down from the post in April citing persistent health problem. 

Challenging Hyde-Smith in the Nov. 6 nonpartisan special election for the right to succeed Cochran was former municipal candidate Tobey Bartee of Gautier, former Democratic U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and Congressman Mike Espy of Madison, attorney and McDaniel of Ellisville who lost that bruising 2014 GOP primary to Cochran. 

On Nov. 6, Hyde-Smith led the race with 41.5 percent of the vote to Espy’s 40.6 percent. McDaniel took only 16.5 percent of the vote to Bartee’s 1.4 percent. A massive campaign rally in DeSoto County in which Trump strongly endorsed Hyde-Smith and then cut TV commercials backing her was seen by McDaniel’s supporters as an insurmountable advantage. 

The Nov. 27 special election runoff ensued with outside spending attack ads from both camps that painted Hyde-Smith as an insensitive racist and Espy as a crooked public official for hire. Throughout a prior 18-year career in Mississippi politics, Hyde-Smith had never faced allegations of that nature. Espy was cleared of all criminal charges against him 20 years ago and has enjoyed a successful law practice since that time. 

Both of them are far better human beings than how they were portrayed the last months and weeks and both deserved better treatment. 

But since Nov. 6, Mississippi voters have seen up close what a national campaign looks like when both major parties have resources and outside spending entities engage in campaign tactics like this. For many, the question remaining after the political dust settled today is just why any candidate would subject themselves and their families to the meat grinder of modern politics? 

Sid Salter   is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com.

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