Five things to watch in Mississippi Senate race

Republicans are scrambling to keep a Mississippi Senate seat in Tuesday’s runoff election after a series of controversial gaffes by embattled Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith has threatened her prospects in the deep-red state.

Hyde-Smith faces former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy (D), who’s vying to become Mississippi’s first black senator since Reconstruction in the last remaining race this campaign cycle.

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Democrats are eyeing another upset win in the Deep South after a surprising victory in Alabama’s Senate special election last year.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden, Sanders lead field in Iowa poll The Memo: Cohen fans flames around Trump Memo Comey used to brief Trump on dossier released: report MORE traveled to Mississippi on the eve of the runoff in a last-minute effort to bolster Hyde-Smith, whose victory would expand Republicans’ Senate majority to 53-47.

Here are five things to watch in Tuesday’s runoff.

Will Hyde-Smith’s gaffes depress turnout?

Hyde-Smith is still seen as the front-runner to serve out the remainder of former Sen. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranBottom Line Races Dems narrowly lost show party needs to return to Howard Dean’s 50 state strategy Espy files to run for Senate in 2020, setting up possible rematch with Hyde-Smith MORE’s (R) term, but the prospects of a low-turnout election and a drop-off in enthusiasm are looming as major hurdles for the GOP senator.

Once considered a shoo-in, she’s come under immense scrutiny after joking about her willingness to be “on the front row” if a supporter invited her to a “public hanging.”

She’s also come under fire after joking about making it more difficult for liberal students to vote and after 2014 pictures emerged of her wearing a Confederate hat during a visit to a museum.

Her “public hanging” comments earned a sharp rebuke from Espy, who said they are “harmful” to the state and reinforce stereotypes that Mississippi has worked hard to overcome. Hyde-Smith has defended herself, but ultimately apologized at a debate between the two candidates last week.

Republicans have sought to move past the gaffes and to attack Espy as an out-of-touch liberal. But there are growing fears that Republicans will suffer from an enthusiasm gap compared with Democrats.

Mississippi saw record turnout for a midterm during the four-way special election on Nov. 6. Hyde-Smith came in first in that race with 41.5 percent of the vote, while Espy ended slightly behind with 40.6 percent, both below the 50 percent cutoff needed to avoid a runoff.

Strategists on both sides of the aisle expect much lower turnout, since the runoff falls just five days after Thanksgiving.

That makes it critical for Hyde-Smith to rally the GOP base, including those who voted for Republican candidate Chris McDaniel in the Nov. 6 election, to make another trek to the polls.

Will Trump’s eleventh-hour visit to Mississippi save Hyde-Smith?

Fearing an enthusiasm gap, Republicans brought in Trump to headline two rallies on the eve of the runoff, in a last-ditch effort to excite base voters and pull Hyde-Smith over the finish line.

Trump won Mississippi by nearly 18 points in 2016 and remains popular in the state. Prior to his rallies in Tupelo and Biloxi, the president has offered several endorsements of Hyde-Smith as he hopes to build a stronger Senate majority.

Last week, Trump defended Hyde-Smith, saying she had made the “public hanging” comments “in jest,” while calling it “a shame that she has to go through this.”

The rallies are a calculated gamble for Trump.

He risks suffering an embarrassing outcome like the one in the special Senate election in Alabama in December.  Trump initially backed then-Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeOvernight Defense: Senate bucks Trump with Yemen war vote, resolution calling crown prince 'responsible' for Khashoggi killing | House briefing on Saudi Arabia fails to move needle | Inhofe casts doubt on Space Force Five things to watch in Mississippi Senate race Schumer walking tightrope with committee assignments MORE (R-Ala.) in the primary, who then lost to former state Supreme Court Justice Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreDoug Jones: Carmakers 'scared to death' over Trump tariffs Dems face tough road ahead in Deep South Republicans should give middle class another 10 percent tax cut MORE.

Trump then backed Moore, who went on to lose to Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) after facing multiple allegations of sexual misconduct that he denied.

But Republicans feel more confident about Hyde-Smith’s prospects in Mississippi and are hopeful Trump’s rallies will prove as helpful as they have for a number of Republican Senate candidates in close races this year.

Will loyal Chris McDaniel supporters back Hyde-Smith?

To ensure victory on Tuesday, Hyde-Smith will likely need support from voters who backed McDaniel, a conservative firebrand and state legislator who came in third in the Nov. 6 race with 16.5 percent of the vote, or 146,000 votes.

But that is not guaranteed in a Republican Party that has seen some nasty primary races this year brought on by anti-establishment candidates.

That still leaves open the question of whether Mississippi will see a unified Republican Party or whether McDaniel supporters will stay home — or even consider backing Espy.

McDaniel clashed with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump touts ruling against ObamaCare: ‘Mitch and Nancy’ should pass new health-care law Federal judge in Texas strikes down ObamaCare Ocasio-Cortez: By Lindsey Graham's 1999 standard for Clinton, Trump should be impeached MORE (R-Ky.) and other GOP leaders when he challenged Cochran in a vicious GOP primary in 2014 and came close to unseating him.

Some Republicans initially feared Hyde-Smith’s appointment to Cochran’s seat earlier this year because they were concerned about another McDaniel bid and her vulnerability among GOP voters because of her past affiliation with the Democratic Party.

Despite a contentious race, McDaniel has said he now supports the GOP senator. Now it will be up to his loyal, anti-establishment backers to determine whether they’ll follow in his footsteps.

Will Espy build a winning coalition for another Deep South upset?

If Espy is to have a shot at flipping the deep-red seat, he’ll need a surge in black voters in a state where African-Americans make up about 38 percent of the state’s population.

Overall, Espy will likely need to win at least 90 percent of nonwhite voters as well as about 25 percent of white voters, strategists said, stitching together a coalition similar to the one that brought Jones to the Senate from Alabama last year.

Exit polling from the Nov. 6 election showed that black voters made up 33 percent of the electorate, with Espy winning an overwhelming majority of that vote, while Hyde-Smith won 60 percent of white voters.

To improve on those numbers, Espy will likely need to boost support from the Delta, which makes up a large part of the state’s only majority-black district. It is currently represented by Rep. Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonDems demand probe into death of 7-year-old in DHS custody K Street works to court minority lawmakers Black Caucus huddles as talk of term limits heats up MORE, the only Democrat in Mississippi’s congressional delegation. 

But only 1 in 4 voters from the district voted in the Nov. 6 race, and Espy and Democrats on the ground will need to boost that turnout to enhance their chances on Tuesday. 

Can a Clinton-era politician make a comeback?

Espy has been out of public office and off the campaign trail for more than two decades after serving in Congress from 1987 to 1993, when he left to become former President Clinton’s Agriculture secretary.

Republicans have seized on that past to ramp up their attacks against Espy, linking the Democrat to the Clintons and the swirling controversies from that administration.

Espy also brings baggage of his own, having stepped down as Agriculture secretary in 1994 amid claims that he improperly received gifts. He was acquitted of all charges in 1998 but Republicans have sought to put a spotlight on the bribery allegations.

Hyde-Smith and Republicans have also raised questions over Espy’s past lobbying contract with a West African despot. Fox News reported he earned $750,000 through a contract with former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, despite saying in 2011 that he only collected half that amount.

Espy said he ended the contract with Gbagbo, who’s currently on trial for crimes against humanity, after learning “how bad the guy was.”

Espy isn’t the only former Clinton Cabinet secretary to run for office this cycle. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala (D) won a House seat in south Florida, though the district was increasingly trending toward Democrats.

But not all former lawmakers have fared well in political comebacks. Former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D), who ran a tough challenge for Tennessee’s Senate seat, ended up losing in the GOP stronghold by double digits earlier this month.