Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith is the projected winner of the Senate runoff in Mississippi, according to the Associated Press, overcoming a series of missteps that brought the state’s dark history of racism and violence to the forefront.
Hyde-Smith, who was appointed to the Senate earlier this year after GOP Sen. Thad Cochran stepped down due to health reasons, defeated former congressman and Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy. Neither candidate had won the requisite 50 percent in the first round of the special election on Election Day. She’s the first woman elected to the Senate from Mississippi.
Hyde-Smith was the favorite in the solidly red state, and the final Senate election of 2018 was long seen as an afterthought. But when video surfaced earlier this month of the senator telling a supporter, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row,” the state’s racial wounds were re-opened.
Mississippi is a state with a past rife with violence — and lynchings — through the Jim Crow era, and racial tensions still persist today in many places. The comments from Hyde-Smith, who is white, were quickly seized upon by Espy, who was vying to become not only the first Democrat the state had elected to the Senate in nearly four decades, but also the first African-American senator from the state since Reconstruction.
Republicans even privately acknowledged that Hyde-Smith mangled her response to the video, and it wasn’t until a debate last week that she offered a qualified apology. She said she was sorry to anyone who was offended by her remarks, but then blamed Espy for twisting her words for political gain.
Other questions about Hyde-Smith’s past also arose — photos of her touring the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis with a caption that said, “Mississippi history at its best!”; a measure she’d once pushed in the state Senate for revisionist view of the Civil War as “The War Between the States”; and news that she’d attended an all-white private school like those founded in the South to circumvent integration decrees.
Democrats had hoped the furor over Hyde-Smith’s alliances and beliefs might energize black voters in a state where about 35 percent of the electorate is African-American. But, ultimately, in the largely rural state that’s still deeply divided along racial lines, it wasn’t enough.
Hyde-Smith was also helped by an election eve visit by President Trump, who held two rallies with her on Monday. The president remains popular in Mississippi, a state that he carried by 18 points in 2016.
With the GOP holding onto the seat in Mississippi, they have achieved a net gain of two seats in the Senate, entering the next Congress in January with a 53-47 seat advantage. Republicans defeated Democratic incumbents in Florida, Missouri, Indiana and North Dakota, but lost GOP-held seats in Arizona and Nevada.