Hyde-Smith prevails in Mississippi runoff after 'public hanging' stumble

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) is projected to win Mississippi's Senate runoff, fending off a stronger-than-expected challenge from Democrats after she stumbled with a series of missteps that brought the race to the forefront of the campaign.

Hyde-Smith defeated former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy (D) to serve out the remaining two years 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, in the last congressional race of the year.

Her win makes her the first female senator elected from Mississippi, after she was appointed by Gov. Phil Bryant (R) to replace Cochran in April.

ADVERTISEMENT

Hyde-Smith's victory is a huge sigh of relief for Republicans, boosting their Senate majority to 53-47 seats.

The runoff was triggered after neither candidate won over 50 percent of the vote in the four-way special election on Nov. 6.

At her election night party on Tuesday, Hyde-Smith thanked her supporters as well as President TrumpDonald John TrumpFamily says Trump travel ban preventing mother from seeing dying son Saudi Arabia rejects Senate position on Khashoggi killing Five things to know about the Trump inauguration investigation MORE for his Mississippi rallies ahead of the runoff. She said she'll be a "warrior" for Mississippians and defend conservative values.

"The reason we won is because Mississippi knows me and knows my heart, and thank you for stepping up Mississippi," Hyde-Smith told the crowd. "This victory, it’s about our conservative values."

Bryant also spoke at Hyde-Smith's party, denouncing the media's coverage of the GOP senator leading up to the runoff.

"I’ve never seen anyone attacked, fired at as much as her ... and she won," the governor said. "I want to thank all the media. Because your coverage helped turn out the Republicans like never before."

It had been expected to be an easy victory for Republicans in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1982.  

But the contest was upended after video surfaced of Hyde-Smith joking about attending a “public hanging” if invited by a supporter.

The comments sparked a major backlash in a state with a history of lynchings of African-Americans, who today make up about 38 percent of the state’s population.

But she eventually apologized after initially defending the statement as an “expression of regard” and calling it “ridiculous” to interpret her comments with a negative connotation.

Hyde-Smith compounded her gaffe by joking at a separate event that it should be more difficult for liberal students to vote and after pictures emerged of her wearing a Confederate hat during a 2014 museum visit.

Espy, who was vying to become the state’s first black senator since Reconstruction, decried the "public hanging" comments as “harmful,” arguing that Mississippi has worked hard to overcome past stereotypes.

Following Tuesday's results, Espy touted Democrats' "historic campaign" in Mississippi and focus on growing the state's grass-roots organization.

“While this is not the result we were hoping for, I am proud of the historic campaign we ran and grateful for the support we received across Mississippi,” Espy said in a Tuesday night statement.

"Make no mistake—tonight is the beginning, not the end. When this many people show up, stand up, and speak up, it is not a loss. It is a moment. It is a movement.”

Hyde-Smith's comments sparked Democrats’ hopes for another Senate upset in the Deep South after Sen. Doug Jones (D) defeated Republican candidate 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 in a special election last year.

Trump made a last-minute trip to Mississippi the eve of the runoff in a bid to boost Republican turnout. He urged voters not to take the race for granted and attacked Espy as a “far-left” politician who would vote in lockstep with Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocrats must stand up for Israel Retired Gen. McChrystal: Sending troops to build wall could be seen as ‘misuse of power’ ‘It’s called transparency’ works for Trump on TV, not so much on campaign finance MORE (D-N.Y.).

Republicans also poured millions of dollars into the race, with the Republican National Committee using 100 staffers on the ground to make over a million voter contacts.

But Democrats faced long odds in a state that Trump won by nearly 18 points and one where he remains broadly popular. 

Espy was looking to make a political comeback after being out of public office for more than two decades.

He served as a congressman of Mississippi’s 2nd District — the state’s only majority-black district — from 1987 to 1993. He was then tapped as former President Clinton’s Agriculture secretary, becoming the first African-American to serve in that role.

But Espy had his own baggage in the Senate race, as Republicans sought to put the spotlight on his past bribery allegations, which caused him to step down as Agriculture secretary in 1994. He was acquitted of all charges in 1998.

The Democrat's past lobbying contract — and the money he received — with a West African despot also came under intense scrutiny during the campaign.