History is set to be made Tuesday in Mississippi, where polls have now closed in a bitter and testy special election runoff to determine whether incumbent Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith will become the first woman ever elected to Congress from the state — or whether Democrat Mike Espy will pull off a major upset to become Mississippi’s first black senator since Reconstruction.
Hyde-Smith, 59, is an ardent supporter of President Trump who was appointed earlier this year by Mississippi’s governor to fill retiring Sen. Thad Cochran’s seat. She is vying with Espy to finish out the remaining two years of Cochran’s term in the deep-red state that went for President Trump by nearly 20 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election. Espy, 64, previously served in former President Bill Clinton’s administration.
At stake for Republicans: the size of their Senate majority when the new Congress is seated in January. A win by Hyde-Smith would expand the GOP’s margin in the upper chamber to 53-47 — potentially giving the Senate GOP more leeway to ensure the confirmation of federal judicial and Cabinet nominees, and strengthening the party’s chances of holding the majority in 2020.
Despite the race’s wide-ranging implications, indications were that turnout on Tuesday, as expected, was significantly lower than normal Election Day figures. A spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office, Leah Rupp Smith, said observers from the office were seeing “steady but slow” turnout the first few hours, but the pace picked up late in the day, with estimates that 30 to 40 percent of registered voters cast ballots.
That could pose problems for Hyde-Smith, whose candidacy has been buffeted by missteps and revelations in recent days. On Nov. 6, Hyde-Smith prevailed in a four-way race that included firebrand Republican Sen. Chris McDaniel — but she was unable to secure more than 50 percent of the vote amid heavy turnout, owing to McDaniel’s strong showing. The Nov. 6 election — which saw nearly half of registered voters in Mississippi cast ballots in the Senate race– triggered Tuesday’s runoff.
McDaniel sharply criticized Hyde-Smith throughout the campaign for being insufficiently supportive of the president’s agenda, and some analysts suggested he may have dampened enthusiasm among conservatives for her candidacy.
“There has been a lot of work done to make sure that McDaniel’s supporters will turn out, but the hardest part about runoff elections is getting people to turn out,” Jennifer Duffy, the senior editor for the Cook Political Report, told Fox News. “If they don’t turn out, McDaniel will be seen as the spoiler because if it wasn’t for him, there would not have been a runoff in the first place.”
McDaniel offered only a lukewarm endorsement for Hyde-Smith after his defeat earlier in the month, saying, “I don’t believe she’s the conservative for this state.” He also told his supporters that “President Trump wants us to unite, and we will unite” to back her.
Espy “cannot be allowed to win this seat,” McDaniel said shortly after conceding the race, according to Mississippi Today. “President Trump wants us to unite, and we will unite. We will back Cindy Hyde-Smith.”
Mississippi last elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in 1982, but Espy was trying for the same kind of longshot win that fellow Democrat Doug Jones had nearly a year ago in neighboring Alabama, another conservative Deep South state where Republicans hold most statewide offices.
His campaign gained a second wind amid a flurry of damaging reports and missteps that inundated Hyde-Smith’s campaign in recent days. Mississippi’s past of racist violence became a dominant theme in the race after a video showed Hyde-Smith praising a supporter in early November by saying, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” She said it was “an exaggerated expression of regard.”
More than a week after the video’s release, she said she apologized to “anyone that was offended by my comments,” but also said the remark was used as a “weapon” against her.
Hyde-Smith was seen in another video talking about making voting difficult for “liberal folks,” and a photo circulated showing her wearing a replica Confederate military hat during a 2014 visit to Beauvoir, a beachside museum in Biloxi, Mississippi, that was the last home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
Critics said Hyde-Smith’s comments and Confederate regalia showed callous indifference in a state with a 38-percent black population, and some corporate donors, including Walmart, requested refunds on their campaign contributions to her.
However, Espy has had his own negative press in the run-up to the runoff. In particular, the Hyde-Smith campaign hammered Espy for his $750,000 lobbying contract in 2011 with the Cocoa and Coffee Board of the Ivory Coast. She noted that the country’s ex-president, Laurent Gbagbo, is being tried in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
Espy, who is an attorney, said: “I found out later that this guy, the president, was a really bad guy. I resigned the contract.”
“She stood up to the Democrat smear machine.”
Espy resigned as President Bill Clinton’s agriculture secretary in 1994 amid a special-counsel investigation that accused him of improperly accepting gifts. He was tried and acquitted on 30 corruption charges, but the Mississippi Republican Party ran an ad this year that called Espy “too corrupt for the Clintons” and “too liberal for Mississippi.”
Espy said he refused to accept offers of plea deals because, “I was so not guilty, I was innocent.”
The significance of the race was not lost on President Trump or top Republicans, who headlined two major rallies Monday night for Hyde-Smith in Mississippi.
“If you like [Supreme Court Justice Brett] Kavanuagh, there’s more coming,” South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told the crowd in Tupelo, Miss. “Let’s win tomorrow.”
“She stood up to the Democrat smear machine,” Trump said, referring to Hyde-Smith’s support for Kavanaugh amid a series of uncorroborated and lurid sexual misconduct allegations.
He added: “Your vote on Tuesday will decide whether we build on our extraordinary achievements, or whether we empower the radical Democrats to obstruct our progress.”
Hyde-Smith, who has made the Trump rallies a highlight of her runoff campaign, told the crowd in Tupelo: “I worked very, very hard for you. I have stood up for you and you know I will continue to stand up for the conservative values of Mississippi.”
Fox News’ Andrew O’Reilly and The Associated Press contributed to this report.