The Memo: GOP fears damage in Mississippi

The Republican Party could incur damage even while retaining a Senate seat in Mississippi on Tuesday, strategists within the party admit.

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) is the favorite to win a runoff against Democrat Mike Espy in the Magnolia State, which President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump nominates Jeffrey Rosen to replace Rosenstein at DOJ McCabe says ‘it’s possible’ Trump is a Russian asset McCabe: Trump ‘undermining the role of law enforcement’ MORE carried by almost 18 points in the 2016 election.

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But the racial controversies that have dogged Hyde-Smith during the runoff campaign feed negative images of her party and could cast a long shadow, according to some GOP insiders.

“You’ve got to stand for something, and being a party that attracts and appeals to racists is a very narrow future,” said Rick Tyler, who served as communications director for Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzO'Rourke mulling another Senate run as well as presidential bid Texas senator introduces bill to produce coin honoring Bushes Trump working on labels for 2020 Dems: report MORE (R-Texas) during the 2016 GOP presidential primaries.

Another Republican strategist, asked about the repercussions of the Senate race, laughed ruefully but declined to be quoted by name.

“It’s not the sort of thing you want to be talking about,” the source said, referring to the furors.

Hyde-Smith has come under fire for remarks and behavior seen as racially insensitive.

The most prominent example came when she said earlier this month that if a supporter invited her to a “public hanging” she would be in the “front row.”

The remark was startling given Mississippi’s grim racial history. According to the NAACP, Mississippi had more lynchings than any other state — 581 between 1882 and 1968.

At a debate last week with Espy — who is bidding to become the state’s first black senator since Reconstruction — Hyde-Smith said: “For anyone that was offended by my comments, I certainly apologize.”

But she added: “There was no ill will, no intent whatsoever in my statement. This comment was twisted, and it was turned into a weapon to use against me, a political weapon used for nothing but personal and political gain by my opponent.”

Hyde-Smith incurred some criticism for the manner in which she delivered her qualified apology — she appeared to be reading the words from a script in front of her.

But those critics did not include President Trump, who spoke briefly about the Mississippi race to reporters as he left the White House on Monday for the first of two rallies he had scheduled in the state to support Hyde-Smith.

Trump said he had spoken to the candidate about her comments and that she “felt very badly.” He also said, “You know, it was taken a certain way but she certainly didn’t mean it. As I understand it, she’s already apologized and very strongly.”

Other controversies have lapped around Hyde-Smith, too.

A photo recently came to light of her wearing a Confederate soldier’s hat during a 2014 visit to the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library in Biloxi, Miss. She had posted the photo among  several on Facebook, adding the comment “Mississippi history at its best!”

Separately, at a campaign event in Starkville, Miss., earlier this month, Hyde-Smith was recorded telling a group of people that “there’s a lot of liberal folks in those other schools who maybe we don’t want to vote. Maybe we want to make it just a little more difficult. So, I think that’s a great idea.”

Hyde-Smith and her campaign aides have insisted that the remark was meant in jest — and it was met with laughter by the group with whom she was speaking.

Still, Espy has portrayed such comments as evidence that Hyde-Smith is embarrassing the state. Espy, a former congressman who served as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture during the Clinton administration, is running as a moderate in the race, something that is widely considered necessary to have a shot at winning in such a conservative stronghold.

“We have to make sure our vote gets out. But it’s a red state, probably the most conservative state in the country, so that’s not enough,” said Joe Trippi, a strategist and media consultant for Espy. “We need some Republicans to cross over or stay home.”

There are two possible interpretations of Trump’s decision to travel to the state for the rallies on Monday.

One posits that the president is very confident that Hyde-Smith is going to win and wants to get some of the credit after a period where the GOP’s performance in the midterm elections has begun to look much worse than it initially did — putting further scrutiny on Trump himself.

The other interpretation suggests that Hyde-Smith may be having real trouble engendering enthusiasm from Republican voters, especially given that she faced a challenge from her right in the initial Nov. 6 contest.

Chris McDaniel, a staunch conservative in Mississippi who had previously tried to oust incumbent GOP Sen. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranTop 5 races to watch in 2019 Bottom Line Races Dems narrowly lost show party needs to return to Howard Dean’s 50 state strategy MORE, took more than 16 percent of the vote, to Hyde-Smith’s approximately 42 percent and Espy’s 41 percent.

Many people assume that Hyde-Smith will hoover up McDaniel’s erstwhile supporters in the runoff and win handily, but Trippi argued against that idea.

“Well, that would be 57-41 or something like that. If that’s what was going on, I don’t see why the National Republican Senatorial Committee would have been dropping millions over the last two weeks and the president would be coming in on election eve. And you’re ahead by 17 points? It’s the Republican Party that is in a panic,” he said.

Republicans supportive of Hyde-Smith continue to evince confidence in her chances. In an email to reporters Monday, Republican National Committee (RNC) spokesman Mike Reed insisted that Espy was “stumbling to the finish” amid questions about his past lobbying work.

Reed’s email noted that the RNC was “taking nothing for granted,” with “over 100 paid staffers in the state.”

Independent experts agree that Hyde-Smith remains likely to prevail.

“I expect Hyde-Smith to win, but I think it may be more competitive than we normally see in Mississippi elections,” said Jonathan Winburn, an associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi. “I think there’s an outside chance that Espy wins it — but it’s a small chance.”

Winburn added that the various controversies might hurt Hyde-Smith more outside the state than inside it, though he did caution that it might make a future primary more likely, even if she does win Tuesday.

For Republican Trump-skeptics like Rick Tyler, however, the overall outlook seems much bleaker.

“Every party can have an embarrassing candidate, but the Republican Party seems to have more than its fair share — including its titular head, the president,” Tyler said.

He added: “You don’t have to be a mathematics genius to figure out what the future is. If you hadn’t planned on appealing to minorities, you are just going to be irrelevant.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.