JACKSON, MS — Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith defeated Democrat Mike Espy on Tuesday in the highly anticipated special runoff election. The race had garnered national attention due to its potential for a rare seat flip in the deep red state, but Hyde-Smith emerged victorious even as Republicans feared recent headlines would derail her. Her win means Republicans in January will have 53 of the 100 Senate seats.
Hyde-Smith entered the race as a heavy favorite, though a recently released video of her talking about a “public hanging” rippled across the state and nation and cast doubt on her chances. The Associated Press called the race around 10:30 p.m. EST.
Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann told the Clarion Ledger people requested more than 46,000 absentee ballots for the runoff, suggesting there could be high — or even record — turnout.
Earlier this year, Hyde-Smith was appointed to fill the unexpired term of former Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran and became Mississippi’s first female senator. She faced stiff competition in the Nov. 6 midterm election from Espy, former U.S. agriculture secretary and longtime Democratic congressman, forcing Tuesday’s runoff election.
Democrats had honed in on the race as a rare opportunity to pick up a Senate seat in a state where the last Democratic senator left office in 1989. Those odds seemingly improved and Democrats thought they’d see high turnout from their base, according to Politico. Part of that optimism was due to an anti-Trump wave that propelled Democrats to take control of the House. But Hyde-Smith also fueled Democrats hopes after she praised a supporter for suggesting a “public hanging” as a good way to deter crime.
“If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be in the front row,” Hyde-Smith said at a Nov. 2 rally in Tupelo.
Espy seized on the comment, saying that it has given Mississippi — which has a notorious history of lynchings of African-Americans — “another black eye.”
And that’s not the only racial thread associated with the race.
On Monday, someone hung nooses outside the State Capitol, as well as signs specifically referencing the runoff. The signs were intended to remind people that “times haven’t changed” in Mississippi.
Henry Barbour, a veteran operative in the state who’s currently with the Republican National Committee, told Politico the bases for both parties were energized but said Espy came in with a small advantage in that respect. Even so, he still expected Hyde-Smith to emerge victorious.
“I think Espy supporters are probably a little more energized than Hyde-Smith,” Barbour told the news outlet. “But I do think conservative voters realize this race is going to decide if we have a conservative or liberal representing us in Washington and that is very motivating to conservative voters.”
A cattle rancher turned politician, Hyde-Smith was elected Mississippi’s state agriculture and commerce commissioner in 2011. Before that, she served as a state senator, winning her election as a Democrat in 2000 before switching to a Republican in 2010.
Espy in 1986 became the first African-American since the Reconstruction to win a House seat in the state. He went on to become President Bill Clinton’s first agriculture secretary in 1993.
Espy racked up endorsements from teacher unions, trade unions and labor groups, while Hyde-Smith earned the support of President Donald Trump, Gov. Phil Bryant, the NRA and pro-life groups.