Without question, it would have been a historic event had Mike Espy defeated Cindy Hyde-Smith in Mississippi’s special Senate runoff last night, making him the first African-American Democrat (and just the second African-American from either party since Reconstruction) to be elected to the Senate from one of the eleven former Confederate States.
While Espy over-performed expectations in the runoff, he still lost. But let’s not forget that Hyde-Smith made some modest history herself. She was already the only woman (among 23 in all) from a former Confederate state serving in the Senate. Yesterday, she became the first woman elected to represent Mississippi in either chamber of Congress. Given her admiration for the South’s Lost Cause of white supremacy, and her tendency to serve up racially explosive gaffes, it does not appear that her gender will make her much of a departure from her state’s and her region’s intensely reactionary political heritage. But there’s little question that part of that heritage has been a reluctance to elect women to high office.
Hyde-Smith joins a small but increasing number of women elected to the Senate or governorships in the South. Not counting the smattering of women appointed to fill out men’s terms (usually succeeding deceased family members), 6 of the 11 former Confederate states had never elected a woman to the Senate before this year. Some women who did win Senate seats had a fragile hold on them: North Carolina’s two women to serve as senator, Republican Elizabeth Dole and Democrat Kay Hagen, were defeated for reelection after one term. So, too, was Florida Republican Paula Hawkins. Arkansas produced two more durable figures: the amazing Hattie Wyatt Caraway, who in the 1930s won a special election and two regular elections after being appointed to her late husband’s seat, and Blanche Lincoln, who served two terms before losing reelection in 2010. Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu set the longevity record for southern women in the Senate with three full terms before her defeat in 2014.
Until 1990, the only women elected as governors in the South (“Ma” Ferguson of Texas and Lurleen Wallace of Alabama) were widely regarded as puppets for their ineligible husbands. Ann Richards was elected in Texas that year (subsequently losing reelection to George W. Bush), followed by Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana in 2004 and Bev Perdue of North Carolina in 2008 (also both one-term governors), and then the first Republican woman to serve as governor in the region, South Carolina’s Nikki Haley. At the moment, there is only one female governor in the region: Alabama Republican Kay Ivey, who ascended to the governorship in 2017 when Robert Bentley resigned as part of a plea deal in a sex/corruption scandal. She easily won a full term this year.
So going forward, Hyde-Smith and Ivey are the two highest-ranking women in southern politics, along with Marsha Blackburn, the newly elected Republican senator from Tennessee. Another woman and African-American, Georgia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, came close to breaking dual glass ceilings in her state. But for the time being, it seems there’s only so much history-making the South can take.