Looking to increase its Senate majority, the GOP wheeled out its biggest gun Monday in Mississippi as President Trump held two rallies to bolster Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith ahead of Tuesday’s run-off election.
First in Tupelo and then on the Gulf Coast in Biloxi, Mr. Trump said he needs Ms. Hyde-Smith for backup in a Congress where Democrats will soon have control of the House.
“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.”
On judges, on immigration, on taxes and on trade Ms. Hyde-Smith would back his agenda, Mr. Trump said. The Democratic candidate, former congressman and Clinton Cabinet member Mike Espy, he said, would move in lockstep with Democratic leaders in Washington including, “the legendary Maxine Waters.”
The president basked in a warm reception in a state he won by 17 points over Hillary Clinton, and Republicans are counting on him to help pull Ms. Hyde-Smith over the finish line after several verbal stumbles made the contest closer than it normally would have been.
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 Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court.
Mr. Espy spent the final days on the trail crisscrossing 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.
“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 science professor 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.”
Still, he said he’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.
That Mr. Espy even has a chance would probably not have been entertained had not Ms. Hyde-Smith made some ill-advised and odd comments that Democrats seized upon to paint her as a throwback to Mississippi’s tarnished past.
The first 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 police and there had been no arrests late Monday, said spokesman Chuck McIntosh.
While Mr. Espy has worked hard to depict himself as a moderate, even going so far in a recent flier to compare himself with former GOP Sen. Thad Cochran, whom Ms. Hyde-Smith was appointed to replace earlier this year, Republicans blasted the candidate as far too liberal an option for Mississippi.
“If you want more jobs and less crime, you have to vote Republican,” Mr. Trump told the Tupelo rally. “Tomorrow’s election is about safety and about jobs.”