As embattled incumbent Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) faces scrutiny over racially tinged comments, she’s relying on the support of one of the biggest names in Silicon Valley to help her down the stretch of her increasingly tight runoff race.
Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook and the founder of the pioneering music sharing service Napster, provided a huge cash infusion this year for the Mississippi Victory Fund, one of a handful of high-dollar political groups backing Hyde-Smith’s election.
He made the donation in an effort to defeat Mississippi state senator Chris McDaniel, Hyde-Smith’s controversial Republican opponent, during their primary race. And it worked—McDaniel, a man who had ties to the neo-Confederate movement, took money from figures connected to the KKK, and made numerous inflammatory comments about women and minorities, lost badly.
But the leftover funds are now being used to help Hyde-Smith in her runoff against her Democratic opponent, former congressman and Department of Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy. And they’re being spent as Hyde-Smith herself comes under intense criticism, first over remarks earlier this month in which she joked that she would attend a supporter’s “public hanging;” and then a report Tuesday that Hyde-Smith had posted a photo of herself at a memorial to Confederate president Jefferson Davis, donning a Confederate military cap, with a caption that read, in part, “Mississippi history at its best!”
In a statement to The Daily Beast, a spokesperson for Parker tried to distance him from the senator. “Mr. Parker doesn’t know Cindy Hyde-Smith and finds her rhetoric reprehensible,” the spokesperson said. “His contribution from early this year was a continuation of the effort to defeat McDaniel.”
But Parker’s spokesman gave no indication that he planned to ask for a refund for any of his sizable contributions to the pro-Hyde-Smith group. “Mr. Parker’s connection to the Mississippi Victory Fund goes back to 2014 and is expressly tied to helping defeat Chris McDaniel,” the spokesman wrote. And his money remains the largest contribution this cycle to a group spending significant sums on Hyde-Smith’s behalf ahead of the November 27 runoff election.
At a debate on Tuesday evening, Hyde-Smith apologized “for anyone offended by my comments,” saying there “was no ill will intended” before adding that her comments “were taken and twisted and used as a political weapon by my opponent.”
Parker initially donated $250,000 to MVF in April, according to Federal Election Commission records. It was by far his largest contribution to any federal candidate or committee this cycle. It also made him far and away the largest donor to the MVF, well ahead of prominent names in Republican politics such as former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour.
MVF, which is run by Barbour’s nephew Henry, is a major player in the Mississippi contest, which is the last Senate contest of the cycle. Neither Hyde-Smith nor Espy cleared 50 percent in the initial vote. But they were the top two vote-getters, leaving them to face off next week.
Since that initial vote, MVF has reported spending about $112,000 on digital and direct mail advertising attacking Espy. One of the group’s recent Facebook ads charged that Democrats have “resorted to the politics of personal destruction by distorting the truth and attacking the character of Cindy Hyde-Smith.”
Parker was a major contributor to another Henry Barbour-run group, Mississippi Conservatives, that sought to defeat McDaniel’s 2014 challenge to then-Sen. Thad Cochran, whom Hyde-Smith was appointed to replace after Cochran's resignation this year.
Parker's donation to MVY this cycle raised eyebrows at the time it was made. While he's given to both parties over the last couple elections, he was a prominent financial supporter of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid. Because of that, McDaniel called on Hyde-Smith to refund the money Parker had given to MVF.
Hyde-Smith is facing similar pressures now, but from a diametrically different direction. Following her comments, corporate contributors to her campaign have faced heightened pressure to request refunds. On Tuesday, Walmart did just that, asking Hyde-Smith’s campaign to pay back a $2,000 donation it had made from its political action committee. AT&T is reportedly asking the same.
Like Walmart’s donation to the MVF, Parker’s came well before Hyde-Smith made the comments at issue. And unlike Walmart, Parker donated to a super PAC supporting her candidacy, not to her campaign itself.
But Hyde-Smith is taking all the outside help she can get, and concerned Republicans are stepping up. On Tuesday, the Republican National Committee put out its hit on Espy, dubbing him a “corrupt former lobbyist” in a press release. And President Donald Trump announced that he will attend at least two campaign events in Mississippi the day before the November 27 runoff.