Voters in Mississippi head to the polls Tuesday in a runoff election for a U.S. Senate seat that some thought would be competitive, but has drawn national attention after numerous missteps by GOP Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith sparked concerns among the Republican Party that her lead over Democratic challenger Mike Espy was tightening.
Tuesday’s runoff was supposed to be a procedural hurdle for Hyde-Smith and for Republicans hoping to expand their Senate majority 53-to-47 over Democrats and to hold onto former Sen. Thad Cochran’s seat. He resigned in April due to health concerns.
But a “jungle primary” format in the special election allowed for multiple contenders from both parties to compete for the open seat for the remaining two years of Cochran’s term. Hyde-Smith needed to secure more than 50 percent of the vote to win on Nov. 6, but instead, Espy benefited from the two Republican contenders — Hyde-Smith and state Sen. Chris McDaniel — splitting the GOP vote. Espy garnered 40.6 percent of the vote, only 0.8 percent behind Hyde-Smith, and McDaniel netted about 16 percent.
Polls are open for Tuesday’s runoff from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (EST).
President Donald Trump held two rallies for Hyde-Smith on Monday, hoping to shore up support for the Republican in a deep red state he won by nearly 18 points in the 2016 election.
“Tomorrow the voters of this state will cast their ballots and one of the most important Senate elections of your lives of all of our Lives,” the president told a crowd of supporters in Tupelo Monday evening, “I’m here to ask the people of Mississippi to send Cindy Hyde-Smith back to the United States Senate.”
Hyde-Smith, a former state lawmaker and agriculture commissioner who was appointed to the seat following Cochran’s resignation, has faced fierce blowback over a racially tinged joke about “public hangings” that became public after a video taken by a political tracker following her campaign posted it to Twitter.
In the first and only debate in the race, Hyde-Smith read an apology from her notes to “anyone offended by my comments,” but has not expanded beyond that on the controversy.
The comments also come as state and federal investigators are looking into who hung seven nooses on a tree near the Mississippi State Capitol on Monday.
The nooses were accompanied by signs that made reference to Tuesday’s election as well as lynching. The Mississippi Department of Public Safety posted photos of the signs on social media Monday seeking more information about the perpetrators.
Mississippi’s Republican Gov. Phil Bryant issued a statement Monday saying the people responsible will be found and punished.
“The perpetrators of this act will be identified and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I have contacted the Department of Public Safety and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for assistance,” Bryant wrote in a statement.
But Hyde-Smith’s controversies did not stop at her “public hanging” remark.
The Republican also took heat after photos surfaced on Facebook showing Hyde-Smith put on a Confederate soldier hat, with the caption “Mississippi history at its best.”
Active in politics in the state for most of the past two decades, Hyde-Smith was a registered Democrat until switching parties in 2010 while she was a member of the Mississippi State Senate. She went on to win election as the Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture in 2011 and was re-elected to the position in 2015.
She has closely aligned herself with Trump throughout her campaign and has a 100 percent “Trump score,” a measure of how often member votes in line with Trump’s position, according to FiveThirtyEight.
Espy, a former congressman and secretary of Agriculture under former President Bill Clinton, has now edged closer into competitive territory. The national Democratic network mobilized in the hopes of delivering a potential upset and has cast his opponent’s controversial comments as an embarrassment to a state whose history has often been defined by racism and racially-motivated violence.
“It’s caused our state harm,” Espy said in a debate earlier this month, “It’s given our state another black eye that we don’t need. It’s just regenerating those stereotypes that we don’t need anymore.”
As a red state Democrat in the south, Espy’s task is a balancing act: embracing the core of his voters who he can help propel him back into national politics, while also convincing more moderate voters of his political independence.
Using his moderate appeal to attract white voters, Espy says he is running as an “independent” Democrat.
“Even though I’m a Democrat, I’m an independent Democrat, meaning that I’m a Mississippian first,” Espy said in an interview last month.
But Espy’s is still facing an uphill battle. Mississippi has not elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1982 and has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since former President Jimmy Carter in 1976.
The Democrat has also faced criticism during the race for allegedly lying about a lobbying contract with the government of the Ivory Coast and work with an African despot who refused to give up power and is now on trial for crimes against humanity. Espy’s campaign says he terminated any relationship with the client when doubts arose.
“Secretary Espy worked on agricultural issues for international clients. Over the course of that work, he realized one of those clients didn’t pass the smell test, so he terminated the contract, and then reported what he knew to the U.S. government,” Danny Blanton, communications director for Espy’s campaign, said in a statement first to Fox News and confirmed by ABC News.
Espy also addressed the report at the Nov. 20 debate, stating in a rebuttal, “I found out later that this guy, the president, was a really bad guy.”
“I resigned the contract and I canceled the last fee that I was due,” he continued. “Then I went to the Central Intelligence Agency that I learned certain things, and I recorded them.”
The unexpected shift in the tenor of the race in favor of the former agriculture secretary is being boosted by potential 2020 contenders such as Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. They have been traveling to the state to stump with Espy — who hopes to deliver a potential upset similar to Alabama Sen. Doug Jones’ seismic victory over Republican Roy Moore.
A loss for Republicans would mean only a one-seat gain for the GOP from the current razor-thin margin that, at times, seemed to hamper their agenda prior to the midterm elections.
In the new Congress, after Democrats flipped nearly 40 seats and gained a comfortable majority in the House, a win in Mississippi is the ending Trump needs to halt Democrats’ momentum before his name is back on the ballot in 2020.