Appointed Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) was expecting to cruise to election in her deep red state after advancing Nov. 8 to the second round of voting. But a pair of racially charged gaffes and nagging problems with her base have Republicans nervous that she could blow what should be a slam-dunk election and cost their party a Senate seat.
Hyde-Smith is facing former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy (D) in an oddly timed runoff election set for next Tuesday, just days after Thanksgiving. Given the state’s deeply racially polarized voting patterns, few thought Espy had much of a chance until last week. But a pair of videos from a liberal blogger showing Hyde-Smith joking about voter suppression and commenting that she’d sit in the first row at a “public hanging” if a supporter invited her have charged up Democrats and left many in her party feeling uneasy.
“The race is definitely tighter than what it should be,” said one top Mississippi Republican. “Her performance has lately not been great.”
She refused to apologize for the public hanging remark, calling it an “exaggerated expression of regard” in a statement. She later played off as a joke her comments that “maybe we want to make it just a little more difficult” for the people that “maybe we don’t want to vote” to cast their ballots.
Mississippi has the highest proportion of black citizens in the country — they make up 37 percent of the state’s population. In a state whose fraught racial history is never far from the surface in modern politics, many Democratic officials saw the hanging remark as a joke about lynching. If Espy pulled off a huge upset, he’d become the first black senator from Mississippi since reconstruction.
President Trump will into the state next Monday, election eve, for a pair of rallies to boost the struggling senator, and tweeted his support on Monday:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 19, 2018
While Trump’s efforts in deep-red states helped Senate GOP candidates in a big way earlier this month, his record in unusually timed elections hasn’t been nearly as good, with both Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA) and Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) pulling off tough special election wins in the last year.
National groups from both parties have begun to spend significant resources on the race since her gaffes, a sign that strategists see a shifting race. And Espy has gotten big-name support of his own, with former Vice President Joe Biden endorsing him on Monday following endorsements from Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Kamala Harris (D-CA).
There have been no public polls of the runoff election. Private polls described to TPM found that the race has tightened since her remarks became public, with some finding her up by just a few points.
One Republican close to Hyde-Smith’s campaign described the gaffes as “dumb and unfortunate things to say” but said they weren’t enough by themselves to give Espy a path to victory.
The candidates have a key debate Tuesday night. Republicans think that if she can avoid any missteps at the event the race is still hers to lose. But after her recent showing, they’re not so confident that will happen.
“The big question is can we get through the debate on Tuesday night?” the Republican said. “It’s all about whether we can get through the debate without saying anything that makes it worse.”
Espy’s side is just glad he has a shot. Many Democrats assumed that he’d only have a shot at outright victory if deeply controversial Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R) had emerged from the all-party primary instead of Hyde-Smith. She easily defeated him, leading the first round of voting with 42 percent of the vote to 41 percent for Espy and 17 percent for McDaniel.
“The dynamics of the hanging comment by his opponent have sparked significant energy that was going to be very difficult to redo. This has been like the afterburner,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) told TPM on Thursday.
“She hasn’t helped herself with the hanging gaffe and voter suppression gaffe. A lot of Mississippians are embarrassed by that, the things that kind of stereotype them,” said Espy adviser Joe Trippi, who also helped Jones pull off a stunning victory last year. “She’s not a great candidate, she’s gaffed, theres a split in their party and Espy has the persona and record of crossing party lines.”
Perversely, Republicans say her gaffes may have helped her with the hardline McDaniel supporters who have been hesitant to support a more establishment-minded Republican.
So far, the airwaves haven’t included the gaffes. Espy’s allies have hammered Hyde-Smith on healthcare, while Hyde-Smith has highlighted Espy’s lobbying work — including his efforts for a corrupt African dictator.
Both sides face a daunting task in getting their voters back to the polls on Tuesday, so soon after Thanksgiving and with no other races on the ballot. As angry as Democrats are about Hyde-Smith’s comments, they’re hopeful that they’ll help them goose turnout and give them a shot at pulling off a stunner. Republicans think that the state’s heavy conservative lean, heavy advertising ripping into Espy’s record and the Trump visits will get their side focused enough to get back to the ballot box.
But both sides concede the election’s timing makes it hard to forecast who will come out.
“No one has any idea how Thanksgiving happening two or three days before the election will impact turnout,” said Trippi. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years and I don’t remember ever having an election this close to a major holiday.”