Senate candidates draw battle lines to boisterous Neshoba crowds

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today

Audience members hold signs as they listen to speeches during the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss. Thursday, August 2, 2018.

NESHOBA COUNTY FAIR – Chris McDaniel supporters were the most vocal, at times bordering on disruptive Thursday, as their candidate slammed both Democrats and establishment Republicans.

All five major party Senate candidates spoke Thursday during the final day of the political speeches. Supporters and onlookers of the candidatures crowded in and around the tin-roofed Founder Square Pavilion.

The three candidates running in the special election — McDaniel, Democrat Mike Espy and Republican incumbent Cindy Hyde-Smith — all had their supporters, in many instances traveling from across the state to be here — but it was the McDaniel contingent who was the nosiest.

Those three — along with Toby Bartee of Gautier —are on the ballot in November in a special election to replace veteran Republican Thad Cochran, who retired in March. Hyde-Smith was appointed to serve in the post in the interim.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today

U.S. Senate Republican candidate Cindy Hyde gives a speech during the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss. Thursday, August 2, 2018.

“I love being in Washington, D.C. There are so many great things happening,” Hyde-Smith said at the fair on another relatively tolerable day at an event known for its oppressive heat. Hyde-Smith, the former state commissioner of agriculture and commerce, referring to efforts to pass the Republican agenda and approve conservative federal judges.

But she was met with disdain by many of the McDaniel supporters, who cheered wildly, when earlier in the day, he proclaimed, “Donald Trump is a fine president. He needs fighters, not just those trying to ride his coattails in Washington, D.C.”

In his speech, McDaniel praised and quoted his political hero, former president Ronald Reagan, who spoke at the Neshoba County Fair 38 years ago, as he spoke of governing as Republican “in bold, not pastel colors.” At times though, his speech pattern and cadence sounded more like that of another president, John F. Kennedy.

But he spoke of the Republican establishment being moved to the middle by the Democratic Party. He said other speakers that day would say all is OK in Washington, D.C.

“You see they will fight to protect each other, but they won’t fight to protect you,” he said to an enthusiastic crowd of supporters waving various signs, including those calling for a debate among the candidates.

“I still believe in hope… I still believe conservatism can save this country if given the chance,” said McDaniel, who exceeded the 10 allotted minutes given to each candidate by more than six minutes.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today

U.S. Senate candidate Mike Espy speaks during the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss. Thursday, August 2, 2018.

Later in the morning, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mike Espy, a former congressman and agriculture secretary under the Clinton Administration, struck a moderate tone before the largely conservative crowd, criticizing the Washington establishment but assuring his audience that once elected he’d work “across the aisle” with the lawmakers who are there.

“I will work with Democrats and work with Republicans. My friends, our leaders in Washington are failing us. We have to do better and we have to elect people now who will make up their own minds and look at the facts and who will do right no matter what,” Espy said to applause.

Though Espy talked about Democrats, he avoided labeling himself one in his speech, despite his party affiliation. Instead, he painted himself as a maverick who follows his conscience, going so far as to tell the crowd that he would be their “independent senator for the state of Mississippi.”

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker speaks during the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss. Thursday, August 2, 2018.

The two major candidates in the regularly scheduled senator election, Republican incumbent Roger Wicker of Tupelo and state House Democratic leader David Baria of Bay St. Louis, hit expected themes. Wicker, who was not originally scheduled to speak because of commitments in Washington D.C., touted that a Republican Senate and House and Trump were carrying out a conservative agenda.

Wicker, running for his second full six year term in the U.S. Senate, did not announce until Wednesday afternoon he would be speaking at the fair, which draws media and political observers from all over the state.
Wicker said Mississippians needed to elect Republicans to ensure regulations that harm “job creators”continue to be repealed, to ensure the historic tax cuts passed in 2017 are not repealed and to ensure the appointment of conservative federal judges.

“This election this year is not complicated. It involves stark difference between two approaches,” Wicker said.

Shawn O’Hara of the Reform Party and Danny Bedwell of the Libertarian Party, both of whom are running against Wicker and Baria, also gave speeches Thursday.

Wicker touted the strong economy with low unemployment. He also highlighted his legislative record, including the Ship Act, which significantly increases the size of the U.S. Navy.

Like Espy, Baria reinforced the notion that he serve in the best interest of the state’s residents, rather than a political party.

“I’m going to Washington for one reason: To fight for you,” the Bay St. Louis Democrat said. “I don’t care what party you belong to, if you live in Mississippi I’m on your team.”

Baria spent much of his time at the podium pointing out the perceived failings of his main opponent, arguing Wicker has done more to help large corporations than every day men and women in the state. He said he has asked Wicker to debate multiple times but hasn’t gotten a response.

“In the Mississippi I know, if a man isn’t willing to stand toe-to-toe and defend his beliefs then he does not deserve your vote,” Baria said.

Both Espy and Baria stuck to the message that blind party loyalty fails Mississippians and stressed they’ll work with anyone regardless of party affiliation.

“We need somebody who will stand up to the (Mitch) McConnells and the (Chuck) Schumers and the (Nancy) Pelosis in Washington,” Baria said. “Mississippi needs somebody who is not afraid of the president.”