One year after Democrats pulled off a stunning upset in a Deep South state against a Republican candidate toppled by controversy, the party is hoping to flip another red seat blue in Mississippi in the last Senate race of the 2018 midterm election cycle.
While the Democrat in the race, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, was initially thought to be a long-shot candidate, the party has seen an opening as the Republican candidate, incumbent Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, faces mounting backlash for "joking" that she would sit "in the front row" at a "public hanging" in a state marred by its history of lynchings and after she said voting should be "a little more difficult" for "liberal folks" — remarks she maintains were made in jest.
Hyde-Smith faces a runoff against Espy in the race to fill longtime Republican Sen. Thad Cochran's seat. Because neither Hyde-Smith or Espy garnered more than 50 percent of the vote on Election Day — both received slightly more than 40 percent — the race advanced to a runoff on Nov. 27, which polling predicated.
Politico reports: "Democrats and allied outside groups have seized on Hyde Smith's musings to spur black voters to the polls and paint her as an embarrassment to the state," while "trying to crack open a narrow path for Democrat Mike Espy — a Cabinet secretary under Bill Clinton who would be the first African-American to represent Mississippi in the Senate since Reconstruction — as a viable alternative." Republicans, on the other hand, have reportedly spent the final days of the special election in Mississippi "coronating Cindy Hyde-Smith as the first woman to represent the state in the Senate."
This can be seen as California-based PowerPACPlus political action committee released an ad "featuring images of Hyde-Smith and hanged black men in nooses. The Black Voters Matter Fund, a get-out-the-vote group, has been organizing in the state to bolster Espy. The Senate Majority PAC, a pro-Democratic Senate super PAC, is pouring $500,000 into the state to help Espy," according to Politico.
Hyde-Smith's remarks "created a lot of indignation among the progressive white community in Mississippi — which is a small but growing group — and it has caused a lot of indignation among African-Americans as well," Rickey Cole, a former chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party, told Politico. Meanwhile, Black Voters Matter Fund co-founder Cliff Albright told the news outlet that "our hope is that contrary to popular belief, instead of turnout going down in this runoff, that black turnout will actually go up."
In addition, Walmart on Tuesday asked Hyde-Smith to return its campaign donation after "Will & Grace" star Debra Messing and others criticized the retail giant for contributing to the Republican lawmaker's campaign following her "public hanging" remarks.
"Sen. Hyde-Smith's recent comments clearly do not reflect the values of our company and associates," Walmart said in a Twitter reply to Messing. "As a result, we are withdrawing our support and requesting a refund of all campaign donations."
Espy previously called Hyde-Smith's remarks "reprehensible," arguing they demonstrate why she is unfit to represent the Magnolia State. He added that her comments "have no place in our political discourse, in Mississippi or our country. We need leaders – not dividers – and her words show that she lacks the understanding and judgment to represent the people of our state."
Amid the mounting backlash against Hyde-Smith, President Donald Trump is planning to swoop into Mississippi on the eve of the state's runoff. The president's trip to Mississippi — a state he won by nearly 18 percentage points in the 2016 election — would be Trump's first rally since his nationwide pre-midterm tour.