/ 28 November 2018

Republican wins Mississippi’s racially-charged Senate runoff

US President Donald Trump and Republican US Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith speak to supporters during a Make America Great Again rally in Biloxi
US President Donald Trump and Republican US Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith speak to supporters during a Make America Great Again rally in Biloxi, Mississippi, US. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

A Mississippi Republican who drew scorn for making racially insensitive comments managed to hold her US Senate seat Tuesday in the final race of 2018, networks projected, avoiding what could have been an embarrassing setback for President Donald Trump.

Incumbent Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith was leading Democratic challenger Mike Espy, a former congressman, by 54.4% to 45.6% with 94% of precincts reporting, according to Fox News and NBC.

The runoff in the Republican stronghold between Hyde-Smith, who is white, and Espy, who is black, came under national scrutiny when unsettling remarks by the senator — who said she would attend a “public hanging” for a supporter — were widely interpreted as alluding to Mississippi’s history of lynchings and other racist violence.

Hyde-Smith’s victory preserves the 53-47 majority that Republicans will hold in the Senate when the new Congress convenes in January, even as Democrats gained at least 39 seats in the House of Representatives, with one race still left to be called.

It also allowed Trump to dodge a political bullet in the Deep South, which under normal circumstances is reliable Republican territory.

“Congratulations to Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith on your big WIN in the Great State of Mississippi,” Trump tweeted. “We are all very proud of you!”

Trump held a pair of 11th-hour campaign rallies in Mississippi to prop up Hyde-Smith’s campaign, which had nearly derailed due to her remarks that Espy and others criticised as racist and un-democratic.

“Mr. President, thank you so much for all of your help,” Hyde-Smith said during a victory speech, stressing that the race was about preserving the “conservative values” of the state.

“Mississippians know me and they know my heart, and thank you for stepping up,” she added.

‘Not the end’

Hyde-Smith becomes the first woman elected to Congress from Mississippi. She was appointed to the Senate in April to replace Republican Thad Cochran, who stepped down for health reasons, and will now serve the remaining two years of his term.

Democrats were hoping political lightning could strike twice within a year in the South, after Democrat Doug Jones scored a shock Senate upset last December in neighbouring Alabama.

It was not to be in Mississippi, a state politically divided largely along racial lines, as voters cast ballots in the final Senate contest of the midterm elections and the final referendum on Trump in 2018.

Espy sought to frame his defeat as a strong showing for a party seeking to make inroads ahead of 2020 elections in a state where racial tensions still run deep.

“Make no mistake — tonight is the beginning, not the end,” tweeted Espy, who once served as agriculture secretary under president Bill Clinton.

“When this many people show up, stand up, and speak up, it is not a loss. It is a moment. It is a movement.”

Hyde-Smith, a former state lawmaker, should have glided to victory.

But she startled observers this month when she said she would be “on the front row” if one of her supporters “invited me to a public hanging.”

Days later she was recorded telling a small group at a university that it would be “a great thing” to suppress votes of liberal students.

With Hyde-Smith facing a backlash, Trump told supporters in Biloxi that it was vital to preserve a strong Senate majority in order to defend policies like tax cuts and confirm judges “who will interpret the constitution exactly as written.”

Democrats reclaiming the House will make it more difficult for Trump to push through his agenda.

Experts said black Mississippians would have needed to vote in significantly larger numbers than the white population for underdog Espy to win.

He and Hyde-Smith entered a runoff because neither gained a majority in the November 6 election, which featured multiple candidates.

© Agence France-Presse