JACKSON — A Democrat in a special U.S. Senate election in Mississippi said Friday that he won’t take part in campaign debates unless Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith also participates.
With only two of four candidates still committed to appear, Mississippi Public Broadcasting announced it is canceling plans to carry an Oct. 4 debate on its statewide TV and radio networks.
Mike Espy’s campaign manager, Oleta Fitzgerald, sent a letter Friday to Millsaps College and MPB, the sponsors of the debate on the Millsaps campus in Jackson.
“A debate where the person occupying the office is not present is unacceptable to us,” Fitzgerald wrote.
Hyde-Smith’s campaign has said she won’t participate in campaign debates if she has to be in Washington on Senate business. She’s scheduled to appear at a campaign rally Tuesday with President Donald Trump, who has endorsed her. It is happening in northern Mississippi’s DeSoto County, a Republican stronghold.
“When she agreed to come to the rally, she put politics before her Senate duties. That just reeks of hypocrisy,” Espy campaign spokesman Danny Blanton told The Associated Press in an interview Friday.
Espy is a former U.S. House member and was President Bill Clinton’s first agriculture secretary in 1993 and 1994. Others challenging Hyde-Smith are Republican state Sen. Chris McDaniel and Democrat Tobey Bernard Bartee, who is a former military intelligence officer.
McDaniel on Friday criticized both Hyde-Smith and Espy for not debating.
“This is political cowardice at its worst,” McDaniel said in a statement. “As is typical for lifelong Democrats, they both lack the courage to discuss the issues.”
Hyde-Smith served 11 years in the state Senate before switching parties in late 2010. Running as a Republican, she won statewide races for agriculture in 2011 and 2015.
MPB executive director Ronnie Agnew said the broadcaster’s goal was to show a debate that included all candidates, to provide information to voters.
“However, with only two of the four candidates committed to attend, it has become clear to us that the debate, as planned, would not achieve our initial goals of providing civic engagement to our statewide audience where all candidate views would have been heard,” Agnew said.
Millsaps issued a statement saying college officials were seeking “further discussion” with the McDaniel and Bartee campaigns. The college did not immediately say whether the debate will still happen.
Party labels will not appear on the ballot for the special election, but candidates are telling voters their political affiliation. The race could have national importance as Republicans try to maintain their slim majority in the Senate.
If nobody receives a majority Nov. 6, the top two advance to a Nov. 27 runoff. The winner will serve the final two years of a six-year term started by longtime Republican Sen. Thad Cochran. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith to temporarily succeed Cochran, who retired amid health concerns in April.
Another debate is Oct. 23 at the Mississippi College School of Law in Jackson. It is sponsored by the Clarion Ledger, the League of Women Voters of Mississippi, the Mississippi Bar Association and WLBT-TV. Blanton said the Espy campaign is waiting to see if Hyde-Smith will participate in that one.