The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Mississippi, Republican concern rises over a U.S. Senate runoff that should have been a romp

Democrat Mike Espy, who is seeking to unseat appointed U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., speaks about the upcoming Senate runoff Friday during a rally in Vicksburg, Miss. (Courtland Wells/AP)

JACKSON, Miss. — A U.S. Senate runoff that was supposed to provide an easy Republican win has turned into an unexpectedly competitive contest, driving Republicans and Democrats to pour in resources and prompting a planned visit by President Trump to boost his party’s faltering candidate.

Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith stumbled recently when, in praise of a supporter, she spoke of her willingness to sit in the front row of a public hanging if he invited her — words that, in the South, evoked images of lynchings. She has struggled to grapple with the fallout, baffling members of her party and causing even faithful Republicans to consider voting for her opponent, former congressman Mike Espy.

That Espy is attempting to become the state’s first black senator since shortly after the Civil War made her remarks all the more glaring. It has positioned him to take advantage not only of a substantial black turnout but of a potential swell of crossover support from those put off by Hyde-Smith’s campaign.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant defended Republican Senate candidate Cindy Hyde-Smith's 'public hanging' comment on Nov. 13. (Video: Reuters)

Espy remains the underdog in the conservative state, but Republicans with access to private polling say Hyde-Smith’s lead has narrowed significantly in recent days. Republicans need only to look to next-door Alabama, where Democrat Doug Jones pulled out a surprise win last year, to stoke concern.

For Republicans, the Nov. 27 runoff is a chance for a slight expansion of their majority in the Senate, their one bright spot in this year’s midterm elections. If Hyde-Smith wins and Gov. Rick Scott keeps his lead in the Senate race in Florida, Republicans would have a senate majority of 53 to 47. A loss in Mississippi would give the GOP a 52-to-48 majority, only one up from the current razor-thin margin.

Trump’s campaign announced Saturday that he would hold rallies for Hyde-Smith in Tupelo and Biloxi the night before the election. The Republican National Committee, meantime, has two dozen staffers in Mississippi and plans to send more. The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) is also sending reinforcements and last week made a $700,000 ad buy.

The Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC has been running the first of about $500,000 in television ads, and Black Voters Matter Fund, a voter turnout group that has been working throughout the South, is sending staffers to the state.

Concern over the tightness of the race came up last week during a conference call that Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo), head of the NRSC, held with Republican donors. In it, he equated the Mississippi race with the party’s ongoing fight over ballots in Florida.

“We take this race very, very seriously,” Gardner said, according to audio obtained by The Post. “We have emptied out the building of the senatorial committee to two places: Florida and Mississippi.”

Hyde-Smith was appointed last spring to replace veteran Sen. Thad Cochran, who retired due to illness. That prompted a special election Nov. 6 and the runoff after no candidate won over 50 percent of the vote. The winner will fill the final two years of Cochran’s term and have to run for a full term in 2020.

Espy played down race while competing in a multicandidate field for the Nov. 6 election, even as the third-place finisher, conservative Chris McDaniel, put the second flag of the Confederate States of America on his yard signs.

However, Espy has been recounting how he and his twin sister had a racial epithet slung at them almost daily in high school. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus are campaigning with him. Espy also spent Saturday with Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif), and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) is planning to come on Monday.

“We may have all come over here on different ships, but we’re all here now,” Espy said after an event here last week. “Yes, there are race issues in Mississippi, can’t sweep those under the rug. But I don’t want to dwell on that. I want to be the senator of everyone, irrespective of race, irrespective of gender, irrespective of party, irrespective of religion. I want to be the vehicle of progress in Mississippi.”

The race in Mississippi is another measurement of whether the South is truly in the midst of a political transformation. The past year has seen a black lieutenant governor sworn into office in Virginia, steps from where Gen. Robert E. Lee assumed command of Confederate troops in 1861, and two black Democrats ran surprisingly strong races for governor in Florida and Georgia in contests marred by racial epithets.

But while Democrats view Mississippi as the finale of an election year marked by victories in unexpected places, the hurdles here are perhaps the highest. Not only is it a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1982, Mississippi was carried by Trump by 18 points in 2016. The president also remains popular there.

“Some might be overly optimistic — but it can happen,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the dean of the Mississippi congressional delegation and its only Democrat. “It would go a long ways toward saying Mississippi is changing its old segregationist ways by the election of Mike Espy. It would go a long ways toward doing away with the stereotypical notion that people in this country have about Mississippi.”

In the first balloting on Nov. 6, Hyde-Smith narrowly topped the field with 41.5 percent and Espy came in second with 40.6 percent. Republican firebrand McDaniel came in third with 16.5 percent.

Many top Republicans here were relieved Hyde-Smith emerged over McDaniel, who they believe would have had more limited appeal. She is a cattle farmer and former Democratic state senator who switched parties in 2010 and was twice elected statewide as Mississippi’s Republican agriculture commissioner.

An abortion rights opponent backed by the NRA, she would also make history as the first woman elected to the Senate from Mississippi. She has worked to win over Trump supporters, with a campaign bus that features his image on the side.

“If McDaniel had knocked her out of the runoff, this would be a knuckle-buster,” said one Republican operative here, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer a frank opinion. “But now it’s hers to lose. I just think the wagons are circled.”

The campaign is a test of both sides ability to get voters to the polls five days after Thanksgiving. There is only one debate, taking place on Tuesday.

“We all know her 41 percent who turned out. We know who ours are,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic consultant working for Espy. “I doubt that many new people are going to be voting. It’s who can motivate their folks.”

Black voters make up 38 percent of the population in Mississippi, and Democratic strategists estimate Espy only needs about 30 percent of the white vote to win. On Nov. 6, an Associated Press voter survey found 57 percent of white voters supported Hyde-Smith, while 21 percent backed Espy and 18 percent voted for McDaniel. Some 83 percent of black voters supported Espy.

Espy had been running a campaign like most Democrats around the country, focusing on health care and casting himself as a bipartisan broker who once endorsed Republican Haley Barbour when he was governor of Mississippi. The focus on Barbour was meant to counter Hyde-Smith’s characterization of Espy as a liberal Democrat.

The release of a video Nov. 11 changed all that. In it, Hyde-Smith said of a cattle rancher, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” The national president of the NAACP immediately denounced the comments, pointing to Mississippi’s history of committing more lynchings than any other state between the Civil War and the civil rights movement.

Her campaign released a statement saying “any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous.” During a news conference held with Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R), she would not answer questions, instead pointing six times to the statement before Bryant stepped to the microphone to defend her remark as merely clumsy.

Another video emerged on Thursday, released by the same Louisiana blogger who publicized the first one, in which Hyde-Smith seems to joke about voter suppression.

“There’s a lot of liberal folks in those other schools who maybe we don’t want to vote,” she says. “Maybe we want to make it just a little more difficult, and I think that’s a great idea.”

Hyde-Smith’s campaign said she was joking. It is unclear whether, by “those other schools,” she was referring to the state’s historically black colleges and universities.

Hyde-Smith declined a request for an interview, and when reporters approached her last week at the U.S. Capitol, she repeatedly declined to engage.

“We’ve already made a statement,” she said several times.

When asked how the comments were impacting the campaign, campaign spokeswoman Melissa Scallan said, “The senator has asked us to just not comment about that.”

“Our focus is mainly on conservative versus liberal. Mississippi is a conservative state, a very red state,” Scallan added. “We do feel like we have an advantage but we are taking him very seriously. His base is strong.”

Scrutiny has also heightened recently over Espy’s past. Fox News on Thursday reported he was paid $750,000 in 2011 to lobby on behalf of an Ivory Coast despot who is now on trial at the International Criminal Court. Hyde-Smith is now running ads questioning whether he lied about that work.

Espy was also forced out in 1994 as agriculture secretary in the Clinton administration, amid accusations that he improperly took gifts from businesses and lobbyists. He later was acquitted on 30 corruption charges.

But it is Hyde-Smith who has commandeered most of the recent attention, to her potential detriment.

Andrea Phillips, a 61-year-old family physician who is black, last week attended an Espy event at a church in Jackson. She said she is just as eager to see a woman as a black man make history. She was pleased when Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith as senator. But that changed as soon as the comments emerged.

“Imagine Mr. Espy was addressing a group, and in an effort to appeal to them, if he said, ‘You could invite me to a gang rape, and I would be on the front row,’ ” Phillips said. “That’s what lynching or hanging is for black people. It’s that abhorrent and offensive. But she doesn’t see that. She doesn’t understand it.”

A half-hour away in Rankin County, one of the places where Hyde-Smith performed best earlier this month, many voters said they were not bothered by her comments. But not all of them.

“It turned the whole thing upside down . . . I knew who I was going to vote for before this. Now I don’t,” said a man named William, a white Republican and self-described “Trumpster” who voted for Hyde-Smith two weeks ago. He declined to provide his last name because he didn’t want to publicly disclose he was considering voting for a Democrat. “Mike Espy is a good guy. Nothing wrong with him.”

Sean Sullivan and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.