Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) created plenty of political headaches for herself with her racially charged remarks in a race where Republicans should be cruising. But while her comments about attending a “public hanging” and subsequent questions about her racial views have created a national maelstrom, strategists in both parties think she’s still likely to hang on for a win Tuesday in deep-red Mississippi.
Hyde-Smith is facing former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy (D) in a special election runoff for the final two years of former Sen. Thad Cochran’s (R-MS) term, and got some marquee help from President Trump, who joined her for a pair of Monday night rallies to boost GOP turnout on the eve of the election.
She needs the help, after drawing national attention for saying if a supporter “invited me to a public hanging, I would be on the front row.” But strategists in both parties think the Trump bump (he won Mississippi by 18 points in 2016) will prove enough in the state that has arguably the most racially polarized electorate in the country.
“It’s looking like a respectable-looking mid-single digit loss but we have a puncher’s chance,” said one national Democrat involved in the race. “The question for her is do these Trump rallies do the trick? Looking at his record in other states, it feels like two rallies the night before are the kind of thing that’ll do it.”
Many took Hyde-Smith’s “public hanging” comment as a reference to lynching in a state which had the most lynchings in the Jim Crow era. She refused to apologize for that remark for more than a week, before saying she was sorry “for anyone that was offended” by them.
But that wasn’t her only racially charged gaffe. She followed up that comment later on that same campaign swing by joking about making it “a little more difficult” for liberals to vote.
Those missteps sent reporters digging into her past, unearthing photos of Hyde-Smith at the Mississippi home of former president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis wearing a Confederate soldier’s cap (“Mississippi history at its best,” she wrote in the Facebook photo caption) and resolutions she introduced in the statehouse to rename a highway after Davis and honor the state’s last daughter of a Confederate soldier. Over the weekend, the Jackson Free Press reported that she’d attended a private high school set up explicitly to avoid desegregation — and that she’d sent her daughter to one as well.
Strategists in both parties think that her gaffes have made the race much tighter than it would have been otherwise, and say a low-turnout race on the heels of Thanksgiving leads to some unpredictability. But most expect that she’ll win by a single-digit margin. That would be something of a moral victory for Espy, as no Democratic Senate candidate has come closer than an 8-point loss in the state in three decades, but it wouldn’t be enough to narrow Democrats’ deficit in the Senate.
“The state is the state. If it’s straight up Democrat-versus-Republican we run out of bodies first. If it’s [about] people who are upset she sent her daughter to an all-white school, we run out of bodies first. It’s just a tough environment. It’s real damn hard,” said the national Democrat.
“It’s really tough,” concurred another national Democrat who’s been involved. “It’s crazy, the things she said, but other than that it’s not a super-interesting race. It’s just kind of depressing, honestly.”
Republicans agree with much of that assessment, lamenting Hyde-Smith’s missteps while claiming that they’ve been able to keep her from sliding any further with a flurry of outside spending.
“The race has stabilized,” said one top Mississippi Republican involved in the race who’d been more worried that she might lose a week ago.
“Nationally there’s been a lot of talk about comments from Cindy Hyde-Smith and people’s reactions to that, a lot of times from people out of state, but we’re back for the most part back to people deciding who will vote to support their views,” said the Republican. “Having Trump coming in only reinforces that.”
National Democratic groups have been quietly involved in helping Espy’s campaign turn out black Democratic voters, and the Senate Majority PAC has aired ads attacking Hyde-Smith on Obamacare, in spots that mirror their ads elsewhere this cycle.
But they’ve been outspent by GOP groups keen on making sure they don’t have a repeat of Sen. Doug Jones’ (D-AL) upset win over scandal-plagued former judge Roy Moore (R).
Hyde-Smith’s comments have caused a national pressure campaign that led major donors including AT&T, Walmart and Major League Baseball to ask for their donations back.
The race’s dark tone continued on Monday, as nooses and “hate signs” were reportedly found on state capitol grounds just hours before President Trump was due in the state for the pair of rallies for the embattled senator.
Trump described her as “an excellent senator” who’s “done a great job” as he left for the rallies Monday afternoon, while claiming she’d fully apologized for the remark.
“She felt very badly, she certainly didn’t mean that, it was taken a certain way but she certainly didn’t mean that,” he said.
It appears that enough Mississippi voters may be willing to give her a second chance as well.