Election Countdown: Hyde-Smith's 'public hanging' joke shakes up Mississippi runoff | New lawsuits in Florida | Trump wants Florida election official fired | Mia Love sues to stop Utah vote count | Republican MacArthur loses NJ House race

Election Countdown: Hyde-Smith's 'public hanging' joke shakes up Mississippi runoff | New lawsuits in Florida | Trump wants Florida election official fired | Mia Love sues to stop Utah vote count | Republican MacArthur loses NJ House race

This is Election Countdown, The Hill's newsletter from Lisa Hagen (@LA_Hagen) and Max Greenwood (@KMaxGreenwood) that brings you the biggest stories on the campaign trail. We'd love to hear from you, so feel free to reach out to Lisa at LHagen@thehill.com and Max at MGreenwood@thehill.com. with any questions, comments, criticisms or food recommendations (mostly the latter, please). Click here to sign up.


We're 720 days until the 2020 elections. And still trying to wrap up 2018...


What was once an under-the-radar race is now in the national spotlight.

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith's (R-Miss.) controversial comments about a "public hanging" have roiled a Senate runoff in deep-red Mississippi, with less than two weeks to go.

Video surfaced over the weekend of Hyde-Smith joking that if the supporter she was campaigning with invited her to a "public hanging," she'd be "on the front row." That comment sparked an outcry in a state that has a history of lynchings.

Hyde-Smith faces former Agriculture Sec. Mike Espy (D) in the Nov. 27 runoff to serve out the remainder of former Sen. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranBiden has a lot at stake in first debate The Hill's Morning Report — Trump turns the page back to Mueller probe Trump praises Thad Cochran: 'A real senator with incredible values' MORE's (R) term, which expires in 2020.

Espy, who's vying to become Mississippi's first black senator since Reconstruction, has called her comments "reprehensible" and "harmful."

Hyde-Smith has 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 in a Sunday statement.

Beyond that, Hyde-Smith has declined to elaborate, responding to reporters' questions by referring them to the initial statement.

The fallout over those comments has prompted some concern from Republicans looking to hold onto the seat and boost their slim Senate majority. They still view her as the front-runner, but worry it gives Espy an opportunity to further mobilize his base in what's expected to be a low-turnout election held five days after Thanksgiving.

Now, more national groups and parties are getting involved, with a possible pre-runoff appearance from President TrumpDonald John TrumpChelsea Clinton announces birth of third child Ukrainian officials and Giuliani are sharing back-channel campaign information: report Trump attacks 'the Squad' as 'racist group of troublemakers' MORE, who easily won Mississippi in 2016.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee is going up on the air starting Thursday. Meanwhile Democrats' Senate Majority PAC will launch its first television ad buy on Friday.

Both campaigns are up with TV ads and Hyde-Smith's allied super PAC, Mississippi Victory Fund, also has its own six-figure buy.

Politico reported that Trump may hold a rally on the eve of the Nov. 27 runoff, but that the plans are not finalized. Hyde-Smith has pitched herself as a steadfast Trump ally that'll advance the president's agenda and "change Washington."


Here are the challenges ahead for both candidates: Espy needs to mobilize African Americans, who make up 38 percent of the state's population, particularly in the Delta. He'll need to encourage more people to vote on Nov. 27 since only one in four voters from the Delta cast a vote in last Tuesday's election.

Meanwhile, for Hyde-Smith, she'll need to unite her party and convince loyal supporters of conservative firebrand Chris McDaniel to back her. McDaniel, who repeatedly attacked Hyde-Smith before Tuesday's election, fell short of making it into the runoff.


Click here for Lisa's look at how Hyde-Smith's remarks are shaking up the Mississippi race.


Recount road

Eight days after Election Day, Florida is still being, well, Florida.


Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonAl Franken says he 'absolutely' regrets resigning Democrats target Florida Hispanics in 2020 Poll: Six Democrats lead Trump in Florida match-ups MORE (D-Fla.) filed two new lawsuits in federal court on Tuesday, ramping up Democrats' legal challenges to the state's election standards. One lawsuit asks a judge to throw out some of the state's procedures for determining so-called "voter intent" and ensure that certain unconventionally marked ballots are counted. The other seeks to push back a series of crucial recount deadlines, arguing that officials at least one county will not be able to finish tabulations in time.


Those lawsuits came just days after Nelson's campaign sued to invalidate Florida's signature-matching statute, which dictates how provisional and mail-in ballots are evaluated. That case went before a federal judge on Wednesday afternoon for a key hearing.


The Florida Department of State also asked federal prosecutors last week to investigate altered election forms that state officials say are tied to the Florida Democratic Party. The revelation came on Wednesday when the department released a batch of documents, including a letter to U.S. Attorneys throughout the state and email exchanges showing that forms used to fix defective mail-in ballots were improperly altered to include inaccurate information. The forms, called "cure affidavits," were sent to voters in at least four counties, though it's not clear how many people received them.

While the altered forms are not the kind of elections fraud that Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) and his allies have warned about in recent days, the revelation is likely to fuel Republican attacks on the state's recount efforts.


President Trump on Wednesday called for Broward County, Florida, Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes to be removed from office amid controversy over her handling of votes in this year's midterm elections.

"You look at her past, she's a disaster," Trump told The Daily Caller in an interview. "She should have been removed -- I think she should have been removed in the middle of this mix-up." The Hill's Brett Samuels has the details.


Senate showdown

Sen. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenOvernight Energy: USDA expected to lose two-thirds of research staff in move west | EPA hails Trump's work on reducing air pollution | Agency eyes reducing inspections of nuclear reactors USDA expected to lose two-thirds of research staff in move to Kansas City Lawmakers pay tribute to late Justice Stevens MORE (D-Md.) says he has no interest in seeking another term as the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). He's finishing out his first term in the post and has so far received high marks from his colleagues this cycle, even as Senate Democrats were forced to defend seats in 10 states won by President Trump in 2016.


Well, who does want the job? The Hill's Alexander Bolton reports that Sen. Catherine Cortez MastoCatherine Marie Cortez MastoMcConnell challenger faces tougher path after rocky launch The Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment Democrat Sherrod Brown torches Facebook at hearing: They 'broke journalism,' 'helped incite a genocide' MORE (Nev.) is a top candidate to assume the chairmanship of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). Van Hollen is pushing Cortez Masto's name and it appears her candidacy has strong momentum, according to Senate Democratic sources.


Republicans may have held onto their Senate majority in the midterms, but Democrats have little appetite for compromise on immigration. Party leaders see immigration as a potentially valuable issue for them in 2020, when Democratic voters are projected to turn out in higher numbers and pivotal Senate races will be fought in Arizona and Colorado, which have large Hispanic populations, The Hill's Alexander Bolton reports.


House races

Democrat Josh Harder won his bid to oust Rep. Jeff DenhamJeffrey (Jeff) John DenhamEx-GOP Rep. Roskam joins lobbying firm Ex-GOP Rep. Denham heads to lobbying firm Crazy California an outlier? No, we are the canary in the coal mine MORE (R-Calif.) in California's 10th District on Tuesday, bringing the hard-fought race to an end a week after polls closed. Denham was considered among the most vulnerable House Republicans and faced an energized Democratic base that funneled roughly $7 million into Harder's campaign this cycle.


And in New Jersey, Rep. Tom MacArthurThomas (Tom) Charles MacArthurRepublicans spend more than million at Trump properties The 31 Trump districts that will determine the next House majority 10 things we learned from the midterms MORE (R-N.J.) lost his seat to Democratic challenger Andy Kim on Wednesday, resulting in a near-wipeout for Republicans in the Garden State. Democrats have now flipped four GOP-held seats in the state, meaning next year, Rep. Chris SmithChristopher (Chris) Henry SmithThe Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants House approves bill raising minimum wage to per hour House calls for investigation into whether Pentagon tried to weaponize ticks MORE will be the only Republican House member representing New Jersey.


In Utah's 4th District, Rep. Mia LoveLudmya (Mia) LoveFormer GOP lawmaker: Trump's tweets have to stop Congressional Women's Softball team releases roster The 31 Trump districts that will determine the next House majority MORE (R) is suing to stop vote counting as she scrambles to hold onto her seat. The lawsuit alleges that poll monitors have witnessed instances in which certain ballots were counted, even though the signature on it did not match the signature in the voter file. Love is currently trailing Democrat Ben McAdams by a little more than 1,000 votes, leaving the race too close to call for now.


Meanwhile, 2020 is already shaping up to be a bloodbath in the House. Democrats, who are still celebrating their newly won majority in the chamber, are eyeing new forays into deep-red territory. Meanwhile, Republicans are hoping to retake districts that flipped for Democrats this year, betting that the party won't be able to hold onto their gains, The Hill's Reid Wilson reports.

"We're going to have to be more focused on protecting our front-line candidates," said Rep. Denny HeckDennis (Denny) Lynn HeckExclusive: Guccifer 2.0 hacked memos expand on Pennsylvania House races Heck enjoys second political wind Incoming lawmaker feeling a bit overwhelmed MORE (D-Wash.), who's vying to be the next chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).


Race for the White House

Michael Bloomberg could announce a possible presidential bid sometime in January or February. The billionaire and former New York City mayor told the Associated Press that he's planning to sit down with advisers in the coming weeks and months to feel out whether he has a shot at the White House, and that decision could come early next year. "I think January, February would be about as late as you can do it and as early as you can gather enough information," Bloomberg said.


Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro took a key step towards a presidential run, meeting with donors and possible campaign staff in San Antonio, Politico reports. He hasn't formally announced his candidacy yet, but Castro said last month that he's "likely" to mount a bid for the White House.


What they're saying

In an op-ed, former Rep. Steve IsraelSteven (Steve) J. IsraelThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump seizes House impeachment vote to rally GOP Will Trump's racist tweets backfire? The real estate tycoon meets Iran MORE (D-N.Y.), who served at the helm of the DCCC from 2011 until 2015, presents an argument for why the most pivotal runoff election in the country isn't for a federal race or gubernatorial contest – it's for Georgia's secretary of state. "Democrats lost 63 seats in House, 6 seats in the Senate, but nearly 1,000 local races in 2010," Israel writes. "With that, we lost control of redistricting and voter protection. Sure, a race for secretary of state may not have the panache of a presidential race or, say, a primary in the 10th district of Virginia, but we ignore it at our own peril."