MERIDIAN, Miss. — Three weeks ago, Cindy Hyde-Smith was considered a sure thing in Mississippi’s special Senate election, and well on her way to making history as the first woman elected to represent the state on Capitol Hill.
Hyde-Smith — a Republican appointed to her seat by Gov. Phil Bryant last spring to replace the ailing Sen. Thad Cochran — led in the polls, had raised the most money, and in a deeply conservative state where Donald Trump remains popular, had a relationship with the president and a selfie to prove it. Hyde-Smith’s campaign blew up a photograph of her and Trump in the presidential limo and pasted it on the side of her campaign bus — which she dubbed the “MAGA Wagon” — and drove it all over Mississippi in her quest for votes.
But on Sunday, two days before voters were set to head to the polls in Mississippi’s closely watched Senate runoff election, Hyde-Smith’s MAGA bus suddenly broke down — stranding the candidate and her campaign team on a desolate stretch of Highway 45 here in eastern Mississippi. Aides were seen fiddling with the engine panels and climbing under the bus to get the vehicle moving again, but having no luck.
It was hard not to see the bus drama as something of a metaphor for Hyde-Smith’s troubled candidacy, which has quickly gone from smooth ride to imperiled in recent days after the candidate was caught making a series of provocative remarks that have evoked the state’s dark history of racism.
An election that was supposed to be an easy Republican win has become mired in the clash between those who seek to honor the Old South, including its role in the Confederacy, and those who seek to present a new South, built on racial inclusiveness and shunning the ugliness of the past. It is a political race that has become all about race, and Hyde-Smith and her opponent — Democrat Mike Espy, who is African-American — have spent the final days of the campaign trying to sell themselves to voters as the candidate least likely to “embarrass” the state, as they both put it.
“I want to be that senator that you are very proud to support,” Hyde-Smith told supporters at a stop Sunday in Columbus, Miss.
Speaking on Saturday in Vicksburg, Miss., Espy told supporters, “We need someone who won’t give Mississippi another black eye.”
One sign that the race is uncomfortably close for Republicans is the fact that Trump was headed there Monday for rallies in Tupelo and Biloxi. Vice President Mike Pence was expected to join him for the final push.
The trouble for Hyde-Smith started after a video emerged showing the senator praising a supporter by telling him that if he invited her “to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” To many, the comment invoked images of lynchings — an ominous subject in Mississippi, a state that has struggled to deal with its ugly history of Jim Crow laws.
At first, Hyde-Smith refused to apologize, telling reporters in a statement that her words had been twisted out of context by her political opponents. But then came other developments: a photograph she posted on her Facebook page of herself wearing a Confederate hat, and a second video, in which Hyde-Smith jokes about keeping college students from voting. During Hyde-Smith’s silence on the subject, reporters digging into her past found she had introduced legislation as a state legislator to honor the Confederacy. They also reported her parents had sent her to a “segregation academy” — a private school created as an alternative to the integrated public schools.
Hyde-Smith, a former state senator and state Agriculture Department commissioner, seemed flummoxed about how to respond to the racial controversy. She issued a statement accusing her opponents of a political smear. But she didn’t initially apologize, and dropped off the campaign trail almost entirely in the last week. At her one and only debate last Tuesday with Espy, who previously was the state’s first elected African-American member of Congress since Reconstruction, Hyde-Smith read from a carefully worded statement.
“For anyone that was offended by my comments, I certainly apologize,” Hyde-Smith said. “There was no ill will.” She accused Espy of twisting her words and turning them “into a weapon to be used against me.”
“No one twisted your comments, because your comments were live — it came out of your mouth,” Espy shot back. “I don’t know what’s in your heart, but we all know came out of your mouth.”
The response marked a departure for Espy, who has tried to avoid the issue of race in the surprisingly close contest. A former Agriculture Department secretary under President Bill Clinton before he was forced out over ethics issues, Espy has presented himself as a moderate Democrat in the race — perhaps a nod to the fact that any path of victory for him would require not just a massive turnout of black voters in Mississippi but support from at least some whites as well.
Ahead of the Nov. 7 vote, Espy avoided mentions of race and of Trump, focusing instead on health care, job creation and other policies intended to appeal to all voters. But in recent days, that has changed. Campaigning on Saturday night before an almost entirely African-American crowd in a downtrodden neighborhood south of downtown Vicksburg, Espy brought up Hyde-Smith’s apology, which to many seemed carefully worded so as not to alienate conservatives.
“There’s something about politics today where people think to express sorrow, to say that you apologize and somehow, they sense the weakness. And that’s wrong. Because there’s nobody perfect,” he said. “Everybody makes mistakes.”
While he did not directly attack Hyde-Smith for her remarks and has avoided commenting on the other questions about her racial attitudes, he has cast the election as a choice between the Old Mississippi and the new. “We are not going back. We are not going to yesteryear,” he said in Vicksburg. “We’re not going back when all that stuff was done. You know what I’m talking about. I want to be your representative for the future.”
But it’s unclear whether Hyde-Smith’s embarrassments will matter much at the polls in what remains a racially polarized state. Blacks make up an estimated 40 percent of Mississippi’s voting electorate, but turnout is often low, especially in the Mississippi Delta, home to some of the most impoverished counties in the nation and where many feel that politicians in general have left them behind.
But Espy has made a huge push to turn out that vote. Last year, he participated in events with the newly revived Poor People’s Campaign, which is seeking to resurrect Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign to eradicate poverty. He has hired the same advisers behind Democrat Doug Jones’s surprise victory in neighboring Alabama — including those who operated his ground game and turned out black women in historic numbers.
There are tentative signs that Espy’s efforts did boost his numbers. In the Nov. 6 special election, voter turnout was about 35 percent higher than the last midterm election in 2014. Espy came within 1 percent — or 3,000 votes — of Hyde-Smith, who won 42 percent support in the election compared to his 41 percent. The election was operated as what the state called a “jungle primary,” allowing candidates from different parties to run on the same ballot. Hyde-Smith faced a challenge on the far right from Tea Party candidate Chris McDaniel, who got 16 percent of the vote. With McDaniel out of the race, she’s expected to pick up the bulk of his support.
While Espy appears to have expanded the Democratic electorate compared to 2014, he still didn’t see the turnout of as many voters as Hillary Clinton in 2016. In the runoff, he’s hoping to buck the history of low turnout by Democrats in special elections. But it’s estimated he’ll need to peel off between 20 and 30 percent of Republican voters.
His campaign has admitted this will be difficult, but they say it is not impossible. Last week, Espy held an event with farmers angry about Trump’s policy on tariffs. One attendee, in an interview with MSNBC, described himself as a “lifelong Republican” who said he was voting for Espy because he worried that Hyde-Smith would reinforce bad stereotypes about Mississippi. Espy’s campaign cut the interview into a last-minute campaign spot.
Republicans close to Hyde-Smith’s campaign expect her to win, but internal polling shows a closer-than-expected race, with one survey showing her up by just 5 points. One GOP source, who declined to be named while discussing internal campaign data, said the momentum is all on Espy’s side.
That was not hard to see this weekend. On Saturday, Hyde-Smith hit the campaign trail for the first time in several days, showing up at sparsely attended events in northern and eastern Mississippi. She appeared in counties where Trump had won overwhelmingly but where Espy appeared to have a stronger than expected showing this month.
On Sunday, she spoke to a group of about 20 people in Columbus, near the Alabama border, where she spoke for about five minutes, emphasizing her relationship with Trump and describing the victories she had helped him achieve, including tax cuts and the confirmation of Supreme Court justices.
She made no mention of the drama that has engulfed her campaign, though she thanked her supporters for their supportive texts and emails. “I am 100 percent stepping out in faith. Every morning, I ask God to put that shield of armor on me, take me out there to be the voice that we need. For some reason, God made me that voice,” she said. “I’ve got some pretty thick skin and I can take a lot, but you have to have some pretty thick skin.”
But moments later, Hyde-Smith, who has not taken questions from reporters in weeks, suddenly exited from a back door without saying goodbye to her supporters. Among those left in the lurch was a man dressed as Santa Claus who had walked over from a Christmas-themed store next door in hopes of meeting the candidate. “Oh well,” he said. “Ho ho ho.”
Later that afternoon, after she caught a ride and left behind her broken-down bus, Hyde-Smith appeared at a small rally in Meridian, where she campaigned with her Senate colleague Joni Ernst of Iowa. The turnout was about 20 people, and afterwards, the senator tried to avoid the media by going out a side door. She ignored questions about the racial controversy and began nearly running to escape the handful of cameras, leaving Ernst behind.
Hyde-Smith weaved around a car and finally found the SUV that was waiting for her. But she couldn’t get the door open and stood there for several awkward seconds as reporters shouted questions about the race. She ignored them all, save for one. Asked how she was feeling about the campaign, she replied, “I feel great!”
Then she slammed the door and the car sped off.
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