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Mississippi runoff: Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith wins racially charged election over Democrat Mike Espy

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) delivers a victory speech Nov. 27 after she was projected to defeat Democrat Mike Espy in a Mississippi runoff election. (Video: Cindy Hyde-Smith, Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images/Cindy Hyde-Smith)

JACKSON, Miss. — Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) was projected to win a racially charged runoff election here Tuesday night, overcoming a surprisingly strong challenge by Democratic opponent Mike Espy to become the state’s first elected female U.S. senator.

Hyde-Smith’s victory, coming after her comments about being willing to join a supporter on the front row of a public hanging, bolsters the Republican majority in the Senate and illustrates President Trump’s ability to rally his supporters behind a struggling campaign.

“We have bonded, we have persevered, we have gotten through things,” Hyde-Smith told a room of supporters just after receiving a congratulatory call from Trump. “The reason we won is because Mississippians know me, and they know my heart.”

Espy, who would have become the state’s first African American senator since Reconstruction, ran the state’s most competitive Democratic campaign for U.S. Senate in decades but fell short in his efforts to bring historic numbers of black voters to the polls.

President Trump at a Nov. 26 rally in Tupelo, Miss., asked the crowd to vote for Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) in the Nov. 27 special election. (Video: The Washington Post)

Throughout the campaign, he tried to walk a fine line on matters of race, attempting to galvanize black voters in a state with a greater proportion of them than any other, while not alienating white voters, who turn out in disproportionately high numbers.

Espy, in a speech conceding the race, said he was proud of his campaign.

“When this many people show up, when this many people stand up, when this many people speak up, it is not a loss. It is a moment,” he told supporters at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. “So we are not going to stop moving our state forward.”

Democrat Mike Espy promised to "value Mississippi over everything else," as voters headed to the polls in the Senate runoff election on Nov. 27. (Video: Reuters)

Republicans were not fully confident heading into Tuesday, even in a state that Trump carried by 18 points in 2016 and where Democrats have not won a Senate race since 1982. But Hyde-Smith’s win proved how solidly conservative the state is and how big the challenges still are for Democrats. With 99 percent of precincts reporting, she led with 54 percent of the vote to Espy’s 46 percent.

Espy’s campaign executed its turnout strategy, running ahead of its Nov. 6 vote in nearly every county. He was on track to carry all 25 of the state’s majority-black counties, most by bigger margins than he’d won in the first round. He also cut into traditional Republican margins in some suburban counties. In DeSoto County, on the outskirts of Memphis, he improved from 34 percent in the first round to 41 percent Tuesday.

That was not nearly enough to push past Hyde-Smith, as she racked up landslide margins in reliably conservative counties. Unlike Alabama’s Roy Moore, who struggled to get out regular Republican voters, Hyde-Smith appeared to turn out her base as well as thousands of conservatives who’d backed Chris McDaniel, the insurgent challenger who nearly won a 2014 primary for the seat and who had spent a nasty fall campaign comparing Hyde-Smith to Hillary Clinton.

Despite the election coming days after Thanksgiving, turnout blew past the numbers from the last midterm and was on track to match or nearly match the numbers from Nov. 6. That essentially doomed Espy, whose path to victory depended on many conservatives staying home.

With hundreds of precincts left to count in the Delta, which tends to vote Democratic, the race looked to be the closest for a Mississippi Senate seat since 2008, when Barack Obama’s presence on the top of the ballot powered a surge in African American voters. The eventual margin Tuesday looked to be trending toward a similar result: a Republican win, by around 10 points.

The country’s heaviest political hitters had weighed in on the final federal race of the 2018 midterms, with Trump hosting twin rallies here Monday and Obama sending out a robo-call to urge his supporters to vote.

“My name may not be on the ballot,” Obama said. “But our future is. And that’s why I believe this is one of the most important elections in our lifetime.”

Trump himself also became far more engaged, calling Hyde-Smith last week to express concern about her flailing ­campaign. He urged her to apologize for her comment about a public hanging, according to a person briefed on the call. The next night, reading from notes, she offered a conditional apology to anyone who might have been offended.

Her comments had also drawn attention to a photo of her in a Confederate uniform cap to promote tourism at Jefferson Davis’s homestead and her attendance at a segregation academy.

Hyde-Smith spoke briefly with reporters after her speech Tuesday night, expressing little interest in engaging on her comments during the campaign. “We have apologized for that,” she said. “We’re going to go on and — the people of Mississippi, they are really concerned about today’s events, today’s issues.”

During the campaign, she rode around in a bus dubbed the “MAGA Wagon” and touted how she voted with Trump “100 percent of the time.”

“I know one thing: If she loses, I’ll be blamed, and if she wins, I’ll be given no credit,” Trump told Washington Post reporters in an interview Tuesday. “That’s the only thing I know.”

In the first of his rallies with Hyde-Smith on Monday, Trump cast Espy — who hails from a prominent African American family that has lived in Mississippi for generations — as an unknown quantity who is out of step with the state.

“How does he fit in with Mississippi?” Trump asked. “How does he fit in?”

Espy, after voting Tuesday morning, recounted how his grandfather spent a lifetime helping the state’s black residents, including by founding a hospital so women would not give birth in the cotton fields. He was born in that hospital in 1953.

“He said, ‘Who is Mike Espy?’ ” Espy said. “Well, Mike Espy was a member of Congress from Mississippi — four times. . . . I was the first black congressman since the Civil War. Mike Espy was secretary of agriculture . . . first black in the nation to ever hold that post.”

Still, Espy often struggled to address accusations of ethical lapses. He resigned his position in President Bill Clinton’s Cabinet amid an investigation into accusations that he improperly accepted gifts. He was acquitted on 30 corruption charges, but Republicans ran ads calling him “too corrupt for the Clintons.”

The outcome will not alter control of the Senate, but Hyde-Smith’s win seals a 53-47 Republican majority in the chamber. She will fill the last two years of the term of longtime Republican senator Thad Cochran, whose seat she was appointed to after he resigned because of health problems, and will have to run again in 2020.

On Tuesday morning, a steady stream of voters entered Pleasant Grove Baptist Church to cast their ballots in a Jackson suburb that has been a Republican stronghold. Most said they were unsatisfied with their choices.

“The only reason I’m voting for her is because she’s a Republican,” said Jerry Gullette, a ­58-year-old owner of several Napa auto body shops. “She’s the best of the worst. I could do a better job than her, honestly.”

Nonetheless, he voted for Hyde-Smith.

For Janice Sandefur, a 60-year-old clinical social worker, the election resurrected memories of the all-white school that her parents sent her to, just like Hyde-Smith, where the mascot was the Confederates.

“We are so locked into the concept of tradition as in heritage; I’m sure I had relatives who fought in the Civil War. And I’m really sorry they bought into that,” she said. “We still do have a very divided state. I’m hoping we’re going to rise above this in my lifetime. I really do.”