For more than an hour last Thursday, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS), sat in front of her iPad “mesmerized,” she said, as she listened to the concerns and opinions of a small handful of people she considered some of her most important supporters.
“I just look for opportunities to help you, look for ways to help you,” she told those watching her on Zoom, “because we want to make sure that you have access to me. I assure you I will be listening. I will be listening. There’s no doubt there.”
Minutes later, one of the meeting’s special guests explained why he feared for the nation’s future. “I think we’re already in the midst of a New American Civil War, as we see on the street, as we see on social media,” he argued. Cindy Hyde-Smith listened intently.
The meeting was hosted by Americans4Hindus, a brand-new SuperPAC launched by Romesh Japra, a California cardiologist and tech entrepreneur.
Hyde-Smith appeared on the organization’s radar thanks to Sampath Shivangi, a “staunch” Mississippi Republican described as a “close confidante of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi,” and her Senate Office’s State Director, Umesh Sanjanwala, who donated a total of $57,077 to her in 2011 when she was a candidate for state Agriculture Commissioner. At one point during the meeting, in response to a question about her commitment to the Indian American community, Hyde-Smith pointed to her decision to hire Sanjanwala, suggesting that some of her colleagues had discriminated against him because of his Indian heritage.
In September, the PAC cut her a check for $5,000.
The special guest who fantasized about a looming civil war was 31-year-old Naresh Vissa, and he was just getting warmed up.
“So you brought up that we have a younger generation like me,” he said to Hyde-Smith. “But now I’m thinking about my son, who’s only nine months old. And what is the public school system going to be like when he goes to school? There’s a school in Pennsylvania that recently implemented anti-white supremacy courses or education for kindergarteners. And these, this type of education essentially is teaching white kids that they should feel guilty about their skin color and they should feel guilty about their quote unquote privilege that they’ve been born into. This is in Marion County in Pennsylvania. And now this type of teaching is spreading to public schools all around the country.”
(Vissa told me that he was referring to claims made in an article that appeared in the Free Beacon, a publication that once smeared me personally and mocked my physical disability).
“Rutgers University got rid of their grammar classes, because grammar is apparently considered discriminatory and racist. And that’s the type of policy, that’s the type of change that we’re seeing the radical left hijack. And that’s a huge threat to our schools, to our children. I’m already in my thirties. I’m educated. I have my businesses. But the future is what we have to think about, and that’s why— I never got involved in politics before. I really wasn’t that interested. But this year, something went off in me and I said I gotta do something because something has changed this year, compared to 2016, 2012. A lot has changed, and that’s why I’m urging all of you to get involved, to go out and vote, to voice your opinions, to speak the truth, and to speak the facts.”
When Hyde-Smith appeared on the screen, she was beaming.
“I am just blown away,” she exclaimed. “I thought that was wonderful. I just want to get you on Fox News.”
“Well, let’s connect after,” Vissa said. “Let’s try to make that happen.”
The full, one hour and five minute long video had appeared online until early this afternoon. Vissa had uploaded it onto YouTube under the title, “The New American Civil War with Mississippi Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith.”
When I requested comment from Hyde-Smith’s campaign, they provided the following statement:
Senator Hyde-Smith does not know Naresh Vissa and is not aware of his work. She was responding to several minutes of comments he made about his personal story and how he, as a first generation Indian-American, became more involved in our nation’s political process. She did not go point by point to agree with him on any specific issue or statement that he made. Senator Hyde-Smith condemns racism and white supremacy in any form. She agreed to participate in the call at the request of Mississippi supporters who are active in the Indian-American community. As Senator Hyde-Smith said on the call, “We need to move forward together to create a society that we all enjoy.”
Here’s the relevant portion of the exchange:
And here’s the entirety:
This isn’t the first time Naresh Vissa has managed to work himself into a story about the upcoming election.
In September, Vissa was profiled by Bloomberg in an article about the “nine types of voters who will decide 2020.” Vissa was listed under the category of “Shy Trumpers.” They even sent someone to his home to photograph him. In May, he was interviewed by McClatchy as an example of the kind of voter who decided to sit out 2016.
But neither publication seemed to be aware that before he became the quintessential swing voter, Vissa worked for a company that peddled fake news.
“I started my career, my new career, working for a large company flagged by Google as a fake news organization,” he recalled to Kerry Lutz, host of a podcast by something called the Financial Survival Network. “And we profited heavily off of people’s emotions when it came to politics and how much they hated Obama or loved some other candidate.” Earlier on the podcast, Vissa referred to Dr. Anthony Fauci as “Doctor Fraudci” and claimed the nation’s leading immunologist had never practiced medicine (Prior to joining the National Institute of Health, Fauci completed his internship and residency in internal medicine at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center), and argued that the Chinese had brainwashed Americans into calling the virus COVID-19.
When I emailed Vissa for comment, I also asked him for the name of the company. “I started my career out of graduate school as a Director at what Google, Mother Jones, Inc., and other social media have flagged as a ‘fake news’ or ‘deceptive advertising’ publishing company (one of the largest newsletter companies in the world),” he wrote. “In my interview with the Financial Survival Network, I was broadly referring to Agora Publishing, which was Stansberry’s parent company.”
Hyde-Smith is now in the home stretch of her reelection campaign, a rematch of the contest held only two years ago against Democrat Mike Espy, a former Secretary of Agriculture and the first African American from Mississippi to win a seat in Congress since Reconstruction.
It should be a cakewalk for the Republican.
But notwithstanding her campaign spokesperson’s comment about condemning racism and white supremacy in any form, Hyde-Smith’s views on racial equality aren’t exactly a secret. Neither is her pollyannaish nostalgia for an antebellum past. They are also increasingly out-of-step with the view held by moderate Republicans, even those in Mississippi.
In fairness, her campaign’s unequivocal rejection of racism and white supremacy suggests an understanding of this and is a vast improvement from the way it responded to similar controversies two years ago, even if the notion that her quip about wanting Vissa on Fox News was a response to his “personal story” and not his political commentary seems pretty dubious.
Memorably, in 2018, she generated national controversy and widespread condemnation after video footage appeared online of her making what she later characterized as “an exaggerated expression of regard.” After being introduced at a rally in Tupelo by cattle rancher Colin Hutchinson, Hyde-Smith tells the crowd, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be in the front row.” Later, another video surfaced of the Republican candidate suggesting it would be a “great idea” to make it more difficult for “liberal folks” to vote.
Walmart, Google, Union Paciic, and Boston Scientific all rescinded their support and asked Hyde-Smith to return their donations.. I remember both of these videos well, because I was the person who published them online. Hyde-Smith claimed they had been selectively edited. They were not.
Nor were they necessarily out of character. In 2014, she shared a series of photographs on Facebook of a visit she’d made to Beauvoir, the home of Jefferson Davis, including one in which she dons a Confederate soldier’s hat. “Mississippi history at its best!” she gushed. Four days before the runoff, investigative journalist Ashton Pittman of the Jackson Free Press reported that Hyde-Smith had attended an all-white “segregation academy” in order to avoid school integration.
By Election Day, her 20-point lead had been whittled down into the single-digits, and since then, Hyde-Smith has taken such a low profile that it’s almost as if she prefers to be forgettable.
Earlier this year, in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, Mississippi finally decided to replace its state flag, which featured a Confederate battle flag in its canton. Hyde-Smith was noticeably silent on the issue, and when she finally did issue a statement, the last statewide official to do so, it was so ambiguous that most found it to be meaningless.
While Hyde-Smith is still heavily favored to win reelection, there are at least some indications that Espy may be in an even stronger position today than he was in 2018. For one thing, he currently holds a four-to-one fundraising advantage.
That’s one of the reasons that Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a project of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, is willing to list Mississippi as “Likely Republican” (as opposed to “Safe Republican”), but it’s not the most signifiant reason. As of this writing, Sabato’s Crystal Ball is the only major handicapper to find a glimmer of hope for the Espy campaign, and their justifications are compelling.
“During the Obama era, Democrats (in Mississippi) made noticeable improvements in turning out the vote, especially the African American vote,” Miles Coleman, the Associate Editor for Sabato’s Crystal Ball, tells me. Coleman, a Louisiana native, says Louisiana Democrats also made strides in their turnout operation.
However, in Louisiana, the Black electorate comprises approximately 32% of the vote, and in Mississippi, that number is closer to 40%. “Mississippi is a state that Democrats could turn into a purple state,” he argues.
Coleman also believes Espy has already proven he is capable of running an effective and competent campaign. “Espy did well in the Delta (in 2018), and he did well in DeSoto County (in the Memphis suburbs) and in the suburbs around Jackson.”
Had he been able to capture more votes in Northeast Mississippi or a few more suburban votes, that election may have gone a different way. Regardless though, the most significant reason Coleman thinks that Espy continues to be a viable candidate, even though the odds are still stacked high, is his ability to turn out Black voters.
“Jim Hood (the former Mississippi Attorney General and Democratic candidate for governor in 2019) underperformed among Black voters, and Espy overperformed among suburban voters,” he explains.
There’s one other reason Espy may have a shot, even with Donald Trump at the top of the ticket. “Cindy Hyde-Smith is a weaker candidate than Trump,” Coleman says. He predicts that Espy, win or lose, will still run a few points ahead of Vice President Joe Biden.
I asked Vissa if it was his “general impression that Sen. Hyde-Smith agreed with your remarks about the ‘New American Civil War’ and the concerns you expressed about ‘anti-white supremacy’ curricula.” He noted I’d need to ask her about her “specific thoughts,” but also pointed out the obvious.
“Sen. Hyde-Smith responded to my remarks by saying, “‘I am just blown away. (I thought) that was wonderful. I (just) want to get you on Fox News,'” he noted. “To me, it seemed like she agreed with a lot of what I said.”