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.
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.