Looking to bolster its Senate majority, the GOP wheeled out its biggest gun Monday in Mississippi as President Trump rallied to bolster Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith ahead of Tuesday’s run-off election.
In Tupelo, Mr. Trump said he needs Ms. Hyde-Smith in Washington and urged voters to keep her there.
“I’m here to ask the people of Mississippi to send Cindy Hyde-Smith back so we can make America great again,” Mr. Trump said, after some praise for Tupelo’s most famous son, Elvis Presley. “Don’t empower the radical Democrats to return us to the failure of the past.”
As expected, Mr. Trump basked in a warm reception in a state he won by 17 points over Hillary Clinton, and then the president drew a sharp contrast between Ms. Hyde-Smith and her challenger, former Democratic Mississippi congressman and a secretary in the Clinton administration, Mike Espy.
On judges, immigration, taxes and trade, Ms. Hyde-Smith would back his agenda while Mr. Espy would move in lockstep with Democratic leaders in Washington including, “the legendary Maxine Waters,” Mr. Trump said, referring to the liberal California congresswoman who has been a cheerleader for impeachment.
He was joined by Mississippi’s Republican leadership of Gov. Phil Bryant and Sen. Roger Wicker, as well as South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, whom Mr. Trump introduced as an important voice against “the Democratic smear machine,” that tried to derail the nomination of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
The president had another rally slated for later in the night in Biloxi.
Mr. Espy spent the final days on the trail criss-crossing the state, appearing at Vicksburg, site of the famous Civil War battle on the western border with Arkansas, and Meridian, a small city on the state’s eastern border with Alabama.
Ms. Hyde-Smith got the most votes in the Nov. 6 election but didn’t win a majority, sending her and Mr. Espy into a run-off.
At stake is whether the GOP will hold 52 or 53 seats in the Senate.
Normally Mississippi would be a layup for Republicans given the state’s GOP-heavy electorate.
But Ms. Hyde-Smith’s verbal missteps have made it a race.
“The most striking thing is that this race has been at least seen as competitive, and there’s been some energy for Espy and Democrats in the state,” said Jonathan Winburn, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi. “The Democrats have been better organized in 2018 than I can ever remember and maybe that’s a little bit of a prelude to 2020. But I think it’s actually on the cusp of being really competitive and I’d be stunned if Espy were to win.”
The most recent poll which involved directors from both parties gave Ms. Hyde-Smith a 10-point lead, but leftist outlets have insisted for weeks that private polling shows a closer race. While no one disputes Mr. Espy is trailing, whether the gap is in the single or double digits remains unclear.
Ms. Hyde-Smith’s first stumble occurred in Tupelo. Responding to a speaking invitation from someone she admires, Ms. Hyde-Smith accepted and said she would do so with alacrity had he invited her to “a public hanging.” Then, with a group at Mississippi State University, Ms. Hyde-Smith joked about trying to suppress the traditionally liberal voting blocs at other colleges.
Republicans have fought back against the effort to portray Ms. Hyde-Smith as racially insensitive by reminding voters of Mr. Espy’s criminal indictments while agriculture secretary, for which he was acquitted at trial, and his lucrative work as a lobbyist for a former president of the Ivory Coast in western Africa now on trial in the Hague for alleged crimes against humanity.
A bizarre stunt Monday outside the Mississippi capital in Jackson also sparked controversy. Two nooses were found dangling over a tree branch and above a smattering of hateful signs.
“We want leaders who give honest apologies and can be humble enough to admit when they’re wrong,” read one, an apparent reference to Ms. Hyde-Smith’s delay in offering an apology to those offended by her “public hanging” remark.
The incident was under investigation by capitol police and there had been no arrests late Monday, said spokesman Chuck McIntosh.