The strategy for the vast majority of Republicans in the Trump era couldn’t be any clearer: go all in on all out racism, as the GOP’s political power is almost entirely reliant on aggrieved old white men. The more the GOP can inflame their angry base, the more votes they can get from it.
However, their racism doesn’t take place in a vacuum, and there’s a serious question as to how much mileage they can get out of a perpetual campaign slogan of “those people are coming to take your prosperity.” Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith, racing against Democrat and African American Mike Espy, is strenuously testing how far this single-minded campaign tactic can go.
Between 1877 and 1950, Mississippi had the highest number of African Americans lynchings by any state. That is the context behind Smith-Hyde’s famed quote of “if he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be in the front row.” Smith-Hyde also posed in a Confederate hat at the home of one of America’s most famed traitors.
Jim Crow was the law of the land in the south for nearly a century, and it explicitly disenfranchised African Americans (amongst many other abhorrent crimes). That is the context behind Hyde-Smith's quote that voter suppression is a great idea. She isn't being coy and using racist dog whistles. She's just running as an outright racist. This follows in the footsteps of Trump's 2016 campaign, and the absurd hysteria leading up to this year's midterms around the refugee caravan making its way to the United States. Judging solely on their campaign ads, Republican politicians believe that their voters are nothing more than racist lunatics.
While outright racism worked for Donald Trump, it may not be working for Cindy Hyde-Smith, as Talking Points Memo pointed out:
“The race is definitely tighter than what it should be,” said one top Mississippi Republican. “Her performance has lately not been great.”
There have been no public polls of the runoff election. Private polls described to TPM found that the race has tightened since her remarks became public, with some finding her up by just a few points.
One Republican close to Hyde-Smith's campaign described the gaffes as “dumb and unfortunate things to say” but said they weren't enough by themselves to give Espy a path to victory.
The reason that Mississippi is having a runoff election is because no one received 50% of the vote in the first round of voting on election night earlier this month. Just looking at the results, there's no reason that Cindy Hyde-Smith shouldn't win. She received 41.3% of the vote, another Republican, Chris McDaniel, won 16.4% of the vote, and Mike Espy finished slightly behind Hyde-Smith at 40.9%. If Cindy Hyde-Smith didn't utter a single word between the midterms and the runoff election, she'd guarantee herself a victory. Instead, her unrepentant racism has tightened a race in a state with the highest percentage of African Americans.
Trump and the GOP's outright racism is a double-edged sword. While it clearly is a way to galvanize much of the Republican base, it turns off a significant majority of Americans who don't vote based on their fear of other people. The backlash to Trumpism in these midterms was unlike anything this country has ever seen.
Those are absolutely bonkers numbers. Midterm elections typically see about a third of the electorate turn out to vote, while presidential elections consist of around half the electorate. The Republican Party is so broadly unpopular that midterm Democrats are on pace to receive about as many votes as each of their candidates post-George W. Bush. That's insane.
The modern Republican Party was created in the 1960s. According to Gallup, Richard Nixon received 31% of votes from nonwhite Americans in his 1960 loss to John F. Kennedy. Two presidential elections later, he gained 12% from this group in victory. What happened in between was essentially the big bang of the current Republican Party, as I wrote in my first ever column for Paste in mid-2016:
Barry Goldwater's landslide loss in 1964 convinced the Republican establishment to eschew the far right and turn back to the original Mitt Romney, who happened to be George Romney's rival: Richard Nixon. Nixon lost the election to JFK in 1960 right around the time television was making its way into every household, and that was no coincidence. Two terms later, the Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey at a contested convention after Lyndon Johnson stunned the nation and announced he would not run for a second term. Meanwhile, the first fruits of the “Southern Strategy” were coming to bear—just not for the Republican Party.
Alabama governor George Wallace ran for president in 1968, once famously saying, “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Wallace won Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and one electoral vote in North Carolina. It was the most successful Presidential result any third party has achieved in US history.
George Wallace essentially argued that the right of states to discriminate against their citizens usurped the right of the federal government to order the states not to do bigoted things like that. Richard Nixon wasn't quite ready to echo a certified racist, but he was eager to massage the wording of his message to communicate a similar sentiment, as he began to speak about “law and order” while decrying the violence in our “inner cities.” Nixon's Vice President, Spiro T. Agnew, was less modest. He notoriously blurted out “Fat Jap” and “Pollack” during various press conferences that, somehow, weren't originally filmed on Veep.
The basic GOP playbook is racism, pure and simple. But don't take it from me, take it from famed Republican consultant, and head of the Republican National Committee during Ronald Reagan's presidency, Lee Atwater in 1981:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can't say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states' rights, and all that stuff, and you're getting so abstract. Now, you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
While this strategy was clearly successful in the 20th century, the 21st century is more civilized. Those of us born right around the time that Atwater was eager to explain the GOP's racist tactics are completely turned off by this bigotry-as-policy, and the Republican base has shrunk to one segment of the populace.
The Republican Party has two options: change, or continue down this path of inflaming white male entitlement and racism, and win by restricting non-white men's right to vote. Given Brian Kemp's victory* in Georgia, it sure looks like they have chosen the latter, and it is dependent upon all of us non-racist folk to vote every single Republican out of office. Until they face serious consequences for their abhorrent actions, they will have no reason to change. Cindy Hyde-Smith losing what should be a shoo-in race would be an excellent start. Mississippi, vote Mike Espy on November 27th, and join Alabama in sending a loud and clear message to the Republican Party: the days of Lee Atwater's “southern strategy” are over, and the south is better than Cindy Hyde-Smith is making it look.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.