WASHINGTON ― Republican incumbent Cindy Hyde-Smith defeated Democratic challenger Mike Espy in Mississippi’s Senate runoff election on Tuesday, a heated race that put a spotlight on the state’s history of racist violence.
Mississippi hasn’t elected an African-American to the Senate since Reconstruction. Its voters also haven’t picked a Democrat to represent them in the Senate in 36 years. But a series of offensive comments from Hyde-Smith ― as well as new revelations about her embrace of Confederate history ― gave Democrats hope that they might flip a Senate seat in the deep red South.
Hyde-Smith was appointed earlier this year by Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) to fill the seat vacated by veteran Sen. Thad Cochran (R), who stepped down for health reasons. She became the first woman to represent Mississippi in the Senate. She had previously served as the state’s commissioner of agriculture and as a member of the Mississippi State Senate.
Espy was both the first African-American and the first person from the Deep South to hold the position of U.S. secretary of agriculture, during Bill Clinton’s administration. He had previously served as a representative in the U.S. House from 1987 to 1993.
In this year’s Senate race, Hyde-Smith appeared to create an opening for Espy when she made a joke about attending a hypothetical “public hanging” on the campaign trail in early November. The remark drew heavy criticism in a state with an ugly history of terrorizing black people with lynchings. Though she later apologized, the controversy only grew as major organizations like Walmart, Google, AT&T, Leidos, Union Pacific and Major League Baseball asked her campaign to return their donations.
The comment did enough damage to Hyde-Smith’s chances to draw a presidential pardon of sorts.
“I know where her heart is and her heart is good. That’s not what she was meaning when she said that,” President Donald Trump said Monday evening at a campaign stop in Mississippi.
But the negative headlines didn’t end there. A Rhodes scholar at the University of Mississippi labeled Hyde-Smith a white supremacist, the NAACP called her comments “hurtful and harmful,” a local newspaper revealed that she had attended a “segregated” school when she was younger, and her past praise of the Confederacy was highlighted.
On Monday, the eve of the election, two nooses were found hanging from trees on the grounds of the Mississippi state Capitol, along with six hateful signs that referenced Emmett Till, the black teenager whose 1955 lynching became a symbol of racial violence.
Democrats worked to capitalize on Hyde-Smith’s controversies by energizing black voters in a state where black people make up a larger share of the electorate than in any other state. Espy held his election night event at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. The party also hoped that low turnout in a runoff election would help Espy eke out a narrow victory in the heavily Republican state.
Republicans, meanwhile, cast the race more as a referendum on Trump than a vote for Hyde-Smith, who in the final days of the campaign avoided speaking to reporters at all. The Mississippi Republican Party sent out a mailer urging supporters to get to the polls that featured Trump’s image and not the candidate herself.
Hyde-Smith embraced a similar don’t-focus-on-me strategy at a pair of campaign rallies with Trump on Monday.
“This campaign is not about me, it’s about you. It’s about the people of Mississippi and what you believe in,” she said at a rally in Tupelo. “I will stand for your conservative values, and that is what is on the ballot tomorrow.”
Ultimately, Trump’s last-minute support may have helped save her. The president remains popular in Mississippi, whose voters picked him by nearly 18 points in the 2016 presidential election.
Hyde-Smith will serve the final two years of Cochran’s term, meaning she will face re-election in 2020.