The final Senate race of 2018 was expected to be a sleepy affair — a formality really, with a special election runoff in deep red Mississippi. Instead, the race has been upended in the final days thanks to multiple stumbles by the GOP nominee that have dredged up the state's history of racial violence.
Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith was appointed to the seat earlier this year after longtime GOP incumbent Thad Cochran stepped down due to health reasons. While she remains the favorite in Tuesday's election, her missteps have given an opening to former Democratic congressman and Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy. Were he to win, Espy would become the first black senator from the state since Reconstruction.
Earlier this month, Hyde-Smith was captured on video talking with a supporter. In an apparent effort to praise him, she told rancher Colin Hutchinson, "If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row."
That choice of words evoked grim memories for many. Mississippi — where about 35 percent of the electorate is African-American — had the most lynchings of any state in the post-Civil War and Jim Crow eras, according to the NAACP, and racial tensions persist in some places. Black voting groups are working to turn out voters in the wake of her statements.
Hyde-Smith largely sidestepped the comments until her only debate with Espy last week, where she offered a quasi-apology — saying that she was sorry to "anyone that was offended by my comments" and that she had intended "no ill will." But she also blamed Espy and Democrats, saying her comments "were taken and twisted and used as a political weapon against me by my opponent."
Since the controversy, Hyde-Smith has stayed out of the spotlight and refused to elaborate on her comments or apology. But the political action committees of major corporations have pulled their support and asked for their donations back, including Walmart, AT&T, Pfizer and Major League Baseball.
Those comments aren't the only ones that have raised questions about Hyde-Smith and race relations. Facebook photos from 2014 also surfaced Hyde-Smith touring the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, with a caption that said, "Mississippi history at its best!"
As a state senator Hyde-Smith "once promoted a measure that praised a Confederate soldier's effort to 'defend his homeland' and pushed a revisionist view of the Civil War" as "The War Between The States," according to CNN.
And the Jackson Free Press reported over the weekend that Hyde-Smith had attended an all-white private school — one of many founded after the Supreme Court ordered schools to desegregate as a way to get around the high court's mandate to integrate public schools. She also sent her daughter to a similar school.
Trump made two pre-election stops in Mississippi on Monday to try to rev up Republican voters for Hyde-Smith. He remains popular there, and carried the state by 18 points in 2016.
"I think it'll be a very big day for Cindy, but don't take any chances," Trump warned a crowd in Tupelo. "That's happened many times before. That never works out well, just assume you have to vote."
Trump also cautioned that a Democratic win by Espy could "revoke" gains Republicans make in the Senate earlier this month.
"We cannot allow Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to revoke that victory by winning the state of Mississippi," Trump said.
Hyde-Smith has latched onto Trump at every turn, touring the state in a bus that has a large picture of the two of them plastered on its side. During the debate last week, she boasted about how she will support his agenda and in her short time in the Senate has voted for his administration's priorities 100 percent of the time.
She's also criticized Espy for his past lobbying work for former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, who is on trial for crimes against humanity. His campaign has said Espy ended the consulting arrangement because of Gbagbo's record.
Espy has tried to capitalize on Hyde-Smith's racially charged comments and missteps. In one ad, a narrator says, "We can't afford a senator who embarrasses us and reinforces the stereotypes we've worked so hard to overcome." And at the debate last week, he derided her for "talking about public hangings and voter suppression," saying "I am not going back to yesteryear."
Despite Mississippi's partisan leanings, Democrats only have to look next door to see a possible path to victory. Last year, Democrat Doug Jones was able to flip a Republican-controlled Senate seat in Alabama after the Republican nominee, Roy Moore, was accused of sexual misconduct and assault dating back decades. But even with those allegations hanging over Moore, Jones only very narrowly prevailed.
If Hyde-Smith prevails, Republicans will have added a net of two seats to their Senate majority come January by defeating Democratic incumbents in Florida, Missouri, Indiana and North Dakota, but losing GOP-held seats in Arizona and Nevada. That would give them a 53-47 seat advantage, still slim in a chamber where it often takes 60 votes to advance legislation.
But if Espy is able to pull off an upset, Senate Republicans would only gain one seat — and find themselves with the same 52-48 seat majority they held before the Alabama special election last December.