Democrats are aggressively targeting another Senate seat in the Deep South in next Tuesday’s runoff election after scoring a major win in Alabama last year, as embattled Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) stumbles in deep-red Mississippi.
Hyde-Smith had long been seen as the overwhelming favorite in her race against former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy (D) in Tuesday's runoff, but the widespread backlash over her "public hanging" comment is forcing Republicans to lock down a race that's starting to tighten.
The gaffe is making Democrats more optimistic about their prospects, despite acknowledging the steep challenges they still face in a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1982.
Flipping the seat would give them a second major Senate win in the Deep South after Sen. Doug Jones (D) pulled off a massive upset in a special election in Alabama last year, narrowly defeating Republican Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreRoy Moore loses lawsuit against Sacha Baron Cohen Shelby backs ex-aide over Trump-favored candidate in Alabama Senate race Of inmates and asylums: Today's House Republicans make the John Birchers look quaint MORE who faced multiple sexual misconduct allegations that he denied.
The outcome of the Mississippi race will likely hinge on sustained turnout in a runoff scheduled just days after the Thanksgiving holiday. Espy will need to see a surge among black voters and cut into Republicans’ advantage with white voters if he is to overcome the GOP’ tight grip on the state.
“We need to turn our voters out and replicate Nov. 6. We believe we got a really strong GOTV effort,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist for Espy who also worked on Jones’s campaign.
“I believe the damage she’s done to herself leaves some of her supporters less enthused,” he added, noting that a divided Republican Party and a weak candidate could provide a perfect storm for Democrats yet again, provided they can turn out enough voters.
“Do you lose some momentum over [Thanksgiving]?" he said. "I don’t know that anyone can be confident.”
Race has become a focal point of the campaign after Hyde-Smith joked about being “on the front row” if a supporter invited her to a “public hanging,” comments that had her facing immediate backlash in a state with a history of lynching.
Hyde-Smith, who was appointed in April to fill the seat vacated by retired Sen. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranBottom line Bottom line Alabama zeroes in on Richard Shelby's future MORE (R), also came under fire after joking about making it more difficult for liberal students to vote and after a photo surfaced from 2014 of her donning a Confederate hat at a museum.
The series of incidents have come at the tail end of a midterm cycle marked by instances of racial animus, dog whistles and political polarization.
Polling shows the comments are having an impact. Multiple outlets have reported internal Republican polls showing Hyde-Smith’s lead shrinking, including one cited by The New York Times that has her ahead by only 5 points.
Trippi said he believes the margin between the two candidates is of around 3 to 5 points.
At a debate this week, Hyde-Smith apologized to "anyone who was offended" by her "public hanging" comments, saying she meant “no ill will” by the comments.
But Republicans are not taking any chances, even with Hyde-Smith still favored to win, as they look to maintain their 53-47 majority in the Senate.
President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE is set to hold a couple of rallies on the eve of the runoff, visiting a state he won by 18 points in 2016 and one where he has an approval rating of 59 percent, according to Morning Consult, much higher than the national average.
Trump's visit is geared to boost turnout in an overwhelmingly Republican state.
Hyde-Smith took 41.5 percent of the vote in a four-way special election on Nov. 6, while Espy was close behind with 40.6 percent, forcing a runoff after neither candidate cleared 50 percent.
But she and the second Republican candidate, firebrand Chris McDaniel, earned nearly 150,000 more votes than their Democratic rivals.
Hyde-Smith will now need those McDaniel voters to turn out for her on Tuesday, strategists said.
“Hyde-Smith’s problem is that McDaniel voters stay home, which is possible. But that doesn’t mean they’ll vote for Espy,” said Marvin King, a political science professor at the University of Mississippi.
“Espy has about a 150,000-vote deficit. Even with some of Cindy Hyde-Smith’s gaffes, that’s a lot to make up. Are these gaffes enough?”
Strategists say that for Espy to pull off an upset — and become the state’s first black senator since Reconstruction— he would need to win at least 90 percent of non-white voters, while garnering around 25 percent of white voters.
African Americans make up about 38 percent of Mississippi’s population and exit polling from CNN showed that black voters made up 33 percent of the electorate in the Nov. 6 election, with the overwhelming majority voting for Espy. Meanwhile, Hyde-Smith won 60 percent of white voters.
To gin up enthusiasm, Espy has gotten some star power on the campaign trail from Sens. Cory BookerCory BookerDOJ announces agencywide limits on chokeholds and no-knock entries Fighting poverty, the Biden way Top Senate Democrats urge Biden to take immediate action on home confinement program MORE (D-N.J.) and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisRepublicans caught in California's recall trap Harris facilitates coin toss at Howard University football game Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE (D-Calif.), two black lawmakers and potential presidential contenders.
In his debate against Hyde-Smith, Espy also repeatedly pledged to put "Mississippi first" and serve as an independent senator, touting his moderate views on issues from guns to immigration and praising Cochran.
For her part, Hyde-Smith cast herself as a close Trump ally.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee and GOP super PAC Senate Leadership Fund have each spent north of $1 million to elevate Hyde-Smith, while Democrats’ Senate Majority PAC has spent at least half a million attacking the GOP senator.
The air war has also intensified.
Espy’s campaign went negative for the first time this week with an ad that seizes on her “public hanging” remark as well as portraying her as too cozy in Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile, Hyde-Smith and her allies have painted Espy as too liberal for Mississippi and highlighting his connection to the Clintons.
Hyde-Smith has also gone on the attack, putting Espy on the defensive during the debate over a Fox News report that found he collected $750,000 through a lobbying contract with a West African despot, , despite telling The Hill in 2011 that he received only half of that amount.
Espy said he ended the contract with former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, who’s currently on trial for crimes against humanity, when learning “how bad the guy was.”
Republican are also seizing on his past bribery allegations. In 1994, Espy left his job as Agriculture secretary amid claims that he improperly received gifts. At Tuesday’s debate, Espy called the claims “unfair” and noted his acquittal of all charges in 1998.
Nonetheless, Democrats are hoping that Hyde-Smith's comments will be enough to turn the race towards Espy, providing him with a similar coalition that carried Jones to the Senate from Alabama last year.
“It turns out when you compete and have a strong candidate, you can win and you can be competitive,” Trippi said.