Voters in Mississippi will decide on Tuesday a US Senate special election runoff marked by racial controversy and capped by a last-minute visit by President Donald Trump to shore up the beleaguered Republican incumbent.
History will be made either way: Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, 59, would be the first woman ever elected to Congress from Mississippi, or Democrat Mike Espy, 64, would be the state’s first African American US senator since Reconstruction.
Mississippi’s past of racist violence became a dominant theme after a video showed Hyde-Smith praising a supporter in early November by saying, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”
Hyde-Smith was seen in another video talking about making voting difficult for “liberal folks”, and a photo circulated of her wearing a replica Confederate military hat during a 2014 visit to Beauvoir, a beach-side museum in Biloxi, Mississippi, that was the last home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
Critics said Hyde-Smith’s comments and Confederate regalia showed callous indifference in a state with a 38 percent black population, and some corporate donors, including Walmart, requested refunds on their campaign contributions to her.
Hyde-Smith, who initially refused to apologise for the hanging remark, said last week she was sorry “for anyone that was offended” and accused Espy of twisting her words for political gain.
Espy denied the charge and said, “We all know what came out of your mouth.” He has said the comment perpetuated negative stereotypes about Mississippi and hurt investment.
Mississippi – which still has the Confederate battle emblem on its state flag – has a history of racially motivated lynchings. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) website says that between 1882 and 1968, there were 4,743 lynchings in the United States, and that nearly 73 percent of the victims were black. It says Mississippi had 581 lynching during that time, the highest number in any state.
Hyde-Smith was in her second term as Mississippi’s elected agriculture commissioner when Republican Governor Phil Bryant chose her to temporarily succeed longtime Republican Senator Thad Cochran, who retired in April amid health concerns. Tuesday’s winner will serve the last two years of Cochran’s six-year term.
Hyde-Smith has campaigned as an unwavering supporter of President Donald Trump, who campaigned with her on Monday, praising her at a rally in the northeastern Mississippi city of Tupelo for voting to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
“She stood up to the Democrat smear machine,” Trump said.
The last contest of the midterm election cycle, Tuesday’s election will not affect the balance of power in the new-look Congress that sits in January. Republicans will still hold a Senate majority even if Hyde-Smith loses, while Democrats will take control of the House of Representatives.
Mississippi last elected a Democrat to the Senate in 1982, but Espy was trying for the same kind of long-shot win that fellow Democrat Doug Jones had nearly a year ago in neighbouring Alabama, another conservative state.
Espy campaigned as someone who would be able to bridge the partisan divide in Washington. He was endorsed by former Vice President Joe Biden and three Democrats who are potential 2020 presidential candidates – former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Senators Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey – travelled to Mississippi to campaign for him.
“I ask you tonight, Mississippi. It’s the third decade of the 21st century. Why are we still fighting about the colour line?” Espy said during a speech on Monday night at a predominantly African American church.
“This is a campaign that goes to the colour line and it reached across the colour line, across the chasm of racial division, across the chasm of racial acrimony,” Espy said.
If white voters outnumber black voters two-to-one on Tuesday, Espy would have to win 30 percent or more of white votes, a tough task in a state with possibly the most racially polarised electorate in the country. But if black voters rise to 40 percent of the electorate and Espy wins nine out of 10, he needs less than a quarter of white votes to squeak out a victory.
“If Espy wins that race, it represents a huge breakthrough for America,” said the Reverend Jesse Jackson, a longtime civil rights activist and former Democratic presidential candidate. “If he loses, it’s a brief statement about Mississippi being unrepentant.”
Meanwhile, federal and state authorities are investigating seven nooses that were found hanging from trees outside the Mississippi Capitol on Monday, along with handwritten signs that referred to the Senate runoff and the state’s history of lynching.
Hyde-Smith campaign hammered Espy for his $750,000 lobbying contract in 2011 with the Cocoa and Coffee Board of the Ivory Coast. She noted that the country’s ex-president, Laurent Gbagbo, is being tried in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
“I don’t know how many Mississippians can really relate to an income that can command a $750,000 cheque from one person for a lobbying job,” Hyde-Smith, who is a cattle rancher, said during a November 20 debate.
Espy, who is a lawyer, said: “I found out later that this guy, the president, was a really bad guy. I resigned the contract.”
Federal registration papers show Espy terminated the contract two weeks before its scheduled end.
Espy resigned the Cabinet post in 1994 amid a special counsel investigation that accused him of improperly accepting gifts. He was tried and acquitted on 30 corruption charges, but the Mississippi Republican Party ran an ad this year that called Espy “too corrupt for the Clintons” and “too liberal for Mississippi”.
Espy said he refused to accept offers of plea deals.
“I put my reputation on the line, went through a trial, went through 70 witnesses against me, went through the special prosecutor who spent $26 million against me and I was found not guilty. Because I was not guilty,” Espy told the Associated Press in October. “In fact, I was so not guilty, I was innocent.”