A special election for the Senate in Mississippi has become a test of racial and partisan politics in the Deep South, as a Republican woman, Cindy Hyde-Smith, and an African-American Democrat, Mike Espy, compete for the last Senate seat still up for grabs in the 2018 midterm campaign.
Ms. Hyde-Smith, who was appointed to a seat in the Senate earlier this year, seemed until recently to be on a glide path toward winning the election in her own right. Mr. Espy, a former cabinet secretary under President Bill Clinton, was running a strong underdog campaign but appeared highly unlikely to overcome Mississippi’s strongly conservative inclination.
Yet the trajectory of the election was thrown into doubt last week when a video was circulated showing Ms. Hyde-Smith, 59, praising a supporter by telling him that if he invited her “to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”
Facing an uproar in a state divided by race and deeply scarred by a history of lynchings carried out against African-Americans, Ms. Hyde-Smith has since retreated from the campaign trail, ducking reporters’ questions and declining to apologize. A former state agriculture commissioner, Ms. Hyde-Smith has instead pursued a strategy aimed at shoring up her support with conservative whites, and she enlisted President Trump to campaign for her on the eve of a Nov. 27 runoff vote.
That may be enough for Ms. Hyde-Smith to secure victory in a solid-red state. But in Jackson and Washington, her apparent inability to take the self-inflicted controversy in hand has unnerved Republicans and stoked Democratic hopes for an upset. A private Republican poll last week found Ms. Hyde-Smith’s lead over Mr. Espy had narrowed to just five percentage points, three people briefed on the data said.
Ms. Hyde-Smith has resisted private appeals from Republicans who have urged her to apologize. On a conference call with political donors last week — hosted by the group Winning for Women, which raises money for female Republicans — Ms. Hyde-Smith struggled to allay potential backers’ concerns about the race, according to four people familiar with the discussion, who insisted on anonymity to discuss a private call.
When one participant asked Ms. Hyde-Smith why she would not simply apologize, the senator offered a meandering and vague answer, saying that she was considering an apology but worried that offering one would only further fuel the issue.
The senator’s weeklong retreat has drawn criticism from voters in both parties that she seems either insensitive to her comment’s racial implications or simply incapable of grappling with them as a public figure.