A backlash against Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith’s (R) “public hanging” joke is shaking up the Senate runoff race in Mississippi, prompting Republican concerns about their chances of retaining the deep-red seat.
A video shared by a blogger on Sunday showed Hyde-Smith, who’s running in the special election for former Sen. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranBottom line Bottom line Alabama zeroes in on Richard Shelby's future MORE’s (R) seat, joking that she’d be “on the front row” should a supporter she was campaigning with invite her to a “public hanging.”
The joke drew sharp criticism in a state with a history of lynchings and a significant African-American population.
It also came amidst a recently-concluded national campaign season that has featured controversial remarks about race.
Hyde-Smith faces Democrat Mike Espy. He’s vying to become the state's first black senator since Reconstruction in the Nov. 27 runoff after neither of the two won more than 50 percent of the vote in a four-way special election last week.
Democrats still face tough odds of pulling off an upset in a state that hasn’t elected a member of that party to the Senate since 1982.
But strategists believe the comments are helping to mobilize Espy’s base in a likely low-turnout race held just days after Thanksgiving.
National Republicans are now investing in the race, while also looking to bring in President TrumpDonald TrumpTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Schumer sets Monday showdown on debt ceiling-government funding bill Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe MORE as they look to lock down one of the two the last remaining Senate races in the country. The other if the still too-close-to-call Florida contest.
The GOP currently holds a 51-47 seat majority.
“Republicans who are paying close attention ... are now extremely concerned about where the state of play is in this race,” said a Mississippi-based Republican consultant. “The Hyde-Smith campaign has two weeks to try to move past this low point in the campaign.”
“She’s still the front-runner, but she’s giving Espy an opportunity to use that to motivate the base for voter turnout.”
In a Sunday statement, Hyde-Smith said she used an “exaggerated” expression and dismissed the negative interpretations of the remark.
"In referencing the one who invited me, I used an exaggerated expression of regard, and any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous,” Hyde-Smith said.
Espy, a former U.S. Agriculture secretary and congressman, called the comments “reprehensible.”
In a Monday interview on CNN, Espy said the comments are “harmful because they tend to reinforce the stereotypes that have held back our state for so long.”
Since the weekend fallout, Hyde-Smith has declined to elaborate beyond her statement.
At a Monday press conference with Gov. Phil Bryant (R), she repeatedly referred reporters to her statement, while Bryant and other Republicans have come to her defense.
"I could tell you all of us in public life have said things on occasion that we could've phrased better," Bryant said. "But I know this woman, I know her heart and I knew it when I appointed her. I know it now. She meant no offense by that statement. There was nothing in her heart of ill-will."
National groups are also ramping up their involvement.
The independent expenditure arm of the National Republican Senatorial Committee will be on the air starting Thursday, while Democrats’ Senate Majority PAC will run their first TV ads on Friday.
The groups join both campaigns in hitting the airwaves. Espy’s campaign placed its first small TV buy in the runoff race on Wednesday, while Hyde-Smith and allies have been up since right after last Tuesday’s elections.
Meanwhile, a Democratic source said that national Democrats have stepped into the runoff behind-the-scenes to work with Espy’s campaign.
Since last year, the Democratic National Committee had invested over $556,000 into the Mississippi Democratic Party, which includes the $10,000 a month every state party receives as well as several grants.
Mississippi Democrats said they’ve seen a boost in momentum in recent days, getting calls and contributions from outside of the state, while more people, particularly college students, are offering to volunteer.
They’re hoping the race continues to get more national interest, especially after Democrats won an Arizona Senate seat for the first time in decades.
“It gives more value to the Senate seat ... but it still is not getting the recognition of a Senate race like other states," said Joe Thomas Jr., Democratic county chairman in Yazoo County, where Espy’s hometown is located. "We believe we have a good chance."
Turnout for the runoff is expected to come down after Mississippi saw a record number of voters for a midterm election last week.
Hyde-Smith has been pitching herself as a loyal Trump ally who will work with him to “change Washington.”
She has been reminding voters to turn up at the polls in a TV ad, while getting significant help from allied super PAC Mississippi Victory Fund, which is up with a six-figure TV ad buy as well as small five-figure buys on radio and digital opposing Espy.
The ad casts Espy as the “liberal choice” and a “Clinton ally” who won’t support Trump’s agenda.
Mississippi has been a Republican stronghold that Trump carried by nearly 18 points in 2016.
Hyde-Smith took 41.5 percent of the vote in the state’s special election last week, compared to Espy’s 40.6 percent, but the two GOP candidates earned nearly 150,000 more votes than their Democratic rivals.
After having initial reservations about her candidacy, Trump eventually endorsed Hyde-Smith and held a rally in Southaven, Miss., on Oct. 3.
Republicans are hoping Trump makes a repeat trip to generate excitement. Politico reported Thursday that a Trump rally is potentially in the works, with the president possibly visiting on the eve of the runoff on Nov. 27.
Hyde-Smith, a cattle farmer, served as state agriculture commissioner since 2011 before being tapped by Bryant to fill in for Cochran, who retired in April due to health issues. She made history as the first female U.S. senator to represent Mississippi.
Espy worked in the Clinton administration, serving as the country’s first African-American Agriculture secretary. Prior to that, he served in Congress from 1987 to 1993.
In his Senate campaign, he’s played up his deep ties in the state, and like many Democrats this cycle, is focusing his messaging on health care and protecting Social Security.
Political observers say he needs to mobilize African-Americans, who make up 38 percent of the state’s population, in order to overcome the uphill fight.
Democrats see some glimmers of hope in southern states, particularly after Sen. Doug Jones (D) pulled off a massive upset in last year’s special election in ruby-red Alabama. A critical part of Jones’s success was the mobilization of black voters.
Mississippi Democrats are hoping to emulate Jones’s winning coalition. That’ll largely come from the Delta, which makes up a large part of the state’s only majority-black district represented by Rep. Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonJan. 6 panel subpoenas four ex-Trump aides Bannon, Meadows Democratic anger grows over treatment of Haitian migrants Black Caucus meets with White House over treatment of Haitian migrants MORE (D-Miss.).
Democrats say they need to improve on their numbers, with only 1 in 4 voters from the Delta casting a ballot in last Tuesday’s election.
Republicans’ challenge will be bridging the gap with fervent supporters of conservative firebrand Chris McDaniel, a Republican state legislator who competed in the four-way special election but fell well short of making it to the runoff. He came in third with 16 percent of the vote.
Some Republicans don’t see a lapse in enthusiasm for Hyde-Smith since the comments, but they're cognizant of the challenges of getting people back out to vote after a nonstop campaign cycle.
“The challenges posed ... are the circumstances of when the day is,” said Joe Nosef, a former state Republican Party chairman. “People have so much fatigue [about politics]. People have busy lives and it’s tough to go get them to vote.”