JACKSON, Miss .— In the last major race of the midterm campaign, Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith claimed victory in Mississippi’s closely watched Senate runoff election, defeating Democrat Mike Espy after a tense campaign rocked by unsettling reminders of the state’s dark legacy of racism.
Hyde-Smith, a former state senator and state Agriculture secretary, was appointed by Gov. Phil Bryant last spring to fill the seat vacated by ailing Sen. Thad Cochran. Her win Tuesday to serve out the last two years of Cochran’s term made history, as she became the first elected female lawmaker to represent the state in Washington.
But her path to victory wasn’t an easy one, even in this deeply conservative state where no Democrat has won statewide office since 1982. Though Hyde-Smith failed to meet the 50 percent threshold she needed on Nov. 6 to avoid a runoff against Espy, she had been strongly favored to win the election as recently as two weeks ago.
But the election was thrown into disarray after a video clip emerged earlier this month that showed Hyde-Smith praising a cattle rancher at a campaign event in Tupelo by saying if the rancher invited her “to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” To many, the comment invoked images of lynchings — vigilante killings, overwhelmingly of blacks, carried out by mobs as punishment or to terrorize. The NAACP counts 581 lynchings in Mississippi between 1882 and 1968, the most of any state.
That comment was followed by another campaign-trail remark in which she mused about making it “a little more difficult” for “liberal” college kids to vote. A 2014 Facebook photo circulated of her in a Confederate Army hat visiting the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who lived out his final days in Biloxi. Her own history of attending a “segregation academy,” a private school created as an alternative to the integrated public schools, was publicized — and got more attention after it was disclosed that she sent her own daughter to a similar school.
GOP allies urged Hyde-Smith to quickly apologize, but she hesitated, waiting until her one and only debate with Espy to read from a carefully worded statement in which she expressed contrition to “anyone that was offended by my comments.” Under fire, she vanished from the campaign trail until this weekend, where she spoke to small crowds and fiercely avoided reporters who sought to question her about her views on race, at one point literally running out a side door to escape the media.
On Monday, President Trump flew to the Mississippi for two last-minute rallies in Tupelo and Biloxi, two of the most conservative cities in the state, as part of a GOP effort to make the election less about Hyde-Smith and more about Trump, who won the state by 17 points two years ago and remains popular here. That coincided with a mailer issued by the Mississippi Republican Party that urged the GOP faithful to turn out and vote. It featured a photo of Trump, not Hyde-Smith.
Espy, a former congressman who served as President Clinton’s Agriculture secretary until he was forced out as part of an ethics scandal, was vying to be the first African-American elected to the Senate from Mississippi since Reconstruction. He ran as a moderate, rarely speaking about race until the final days of the campaign amid the outcry over Hyde-Smith’s comments, instead running as a unifier who sought to represent “everyone.”
Hoping to replicate the success of Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in neighboring Alabama, Espy awakened a Democratic Party that had been driven into near extinction in Mississippi, driving up turnout among black voters and appealing to moderate whites angry with Trump. But he faced steep odds from the beginning in a state where Republicans make up more than half the voting electorate.
Still, he was credited with making the race closer than anyone believed it could be, and Democrats were hopeful he might consider running again in 2020, when the seat comes up for full six-year term.
In his concession, Epsy suggested he wasn’t done with politics. “Tonight is the beginning not the end,” the former congressman said. “When this many people show up, stand up and speak up, it is not a loss. It is a moment. It is a movement. And we are not going to stop moving our state forward just because of one election. I look forward to finding new ways to do just that.”
Tuesday’s results didn’t dramatically change the political makeup of the Senate, where Republicans will now hold a 53-seat majority beginning in January. But GOP officials were worried enough about a potential loss that they dispatched dozens of staffers here in recent days to help boost Hyde-Smith’s ground game.
The race was called about two hours after polls closed in Mississippi — a longer wait than most elections here, adding to the GOP anxiety. Hyde-Smith was ahead by about 10 points, with 80 percent of the vote counted. But a party operative dismissed the closeness of the race. “A win is a win is a win,” he said.
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