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In pro-Trump Mississippi, Democrats will have one final chance this month to cut into Republicans' Senate majority.
Democratic former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy aims to upset Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in the Nov. 27 Senate special election runoff. Hyde-Smith, who was appointed to replace retired GOP Sen. Thad Cochran earlier this year, hopes to serve the remainder of her predecessor's term through 2020.
The Mississippi race will not swing control of the Senate on its own. With at least three projected pickups of Democratic seats in last week's election, the GOP will hold its majority in the chamber. However, an Espy shocker would give Republicans one fewer vote in a chamber that has seen its share of razor-thin votes since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017.
Three Senate results are still outstanding: the race for Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson's seat in Florida, as well as the contests for GOP-held seats in Arizona and Mississippi. If the current leaders or favorites, including Hyde-Smith, win in all of those states, Republicans would expand their Senate majority to 53-47. (Democrat Kyrsten Sinema leads in Arizona, while Republican Gov. Rick Scott has a tiny lead over Nelson in Florida.)
An Espy upset would make it a little tougher for the GOP to push through Trump's conservative judicial nominees or approve the president's economic agenda. Still, the Republican Party has had few problems reaching its goals with a narrow Senate majority — with repeal of the Affordable Care Act a notable exception.
In the Nov. 6 Mississippi election, the top two candidates regardless of party advanced to a runoff when no candidate earned 50 percent of the vote. Hyde-Smith garnered 41.4 percent of the vote, while Espy won 40.7 percent. GOP state Sen. Chris McDaniel came in a distant third with 16.5 percent.
The bigger problems for Espy start when GOP support consolidates behind the incumbent. Asked last month about a potential head-to-head race, half of Mississippi's likely voters said they would back Hyde-Smith, while 36 percent said they would support Espy, according to an NBC News/Marist poll. It found the senator earning slightly more support among Republicans than Espy garners among Democrats.
Voter turnout will likely fall in the runoff from earlier in the month, in part because the Senate majority is already decided and party groups will put less money into the race than they otherwise would, said Jonathan Winburn, an associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi. Even though Espy could perform better than Democrats typically do in statewide elections there, Hyde-Smith is the favorite two weeks before the election, he added.
Espy, 64, served as Agriculture secretary during the Clinton administration and represented Mississippi in the U.S. House. If elected, he would be the fourth current black member of the Senate, and second currently representing a Southern state. Tim Scott, a Republican, represents South Carolina in the chamber.
Hyde-Smith, 59, was the state commissioner of agriculture and commerce before her appointment to the Senate. She is the first woman to represent Mississippi in the Senate.
The candidates made few national headlines in the run up to Nov. 6, when toss-up Senate races and Democrats' efforts to win back the House drew the most attention. On Sunday, though, a viral comment from Hyde-Smith put a spotlight on the contest and Mississippi's history of racist violence.
In a video reportedly recorded in early November, Hyde-Smith stood next to a man while campaigning in Tupelo, Mississippi. She said: "If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row."
The comments made during a campaign against a black opponent stoked memories of Mississippi's past, as the state was a hotbed for lynchings. In a statement Sunday night, the senator said that "any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous," according to NBC News.
At an unrelated news conference Monday, Hyde-Smith was asked repeated questions about her comments, and every time referred back to the statement she issued Sunday. Republican Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, who attended the event Monday, said the senator "meant no offense" by it.
Espy's campaign has seized on the remarks, calling them "reprehensible."
"They have no place in our political discourse, in Mississippi, or our country," Espy's communications director Danny Blanton said in a statement Sunday. "We need leaders, not dividers, and her words show that she lacks the understanding and judgment to represent the people of our state."
Espy's campaign has made turning out black voters a priority in a state where partisan leanings favor Republicans. In one section of the campaign's website, it says that "African-American voters, especially on the Internet, need to know how important it is to get out and vote on November 27th."
Espy's campaign could keep reminding voters of Hyde-Smith's comments in order to energize the state's largely black Democratic base, the University of Mississippi's Winburn said. Still, he does not expect her remarks to have a significant effect on the race's final outcome.
In trying to prevail in Mississippi — which Trump won by about 18 percentage points in 2016 — Espy has cast himself as an independent voice. Hyde-Smith has slammed Espy as too liberal for the red-leaning state.
In winning control of the House last week, Democrats focused on health care and in particular, protecting insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. The provision is perhaps the most popular part of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Espy has also made the issue a priority.
On Friday, the campaign asked people to share stories related to health care. In a statement that day, Espy said: "I'll stand up for everyone with pre-existing conditions, defend Medicare and take on the drug companies to make sure prescription drugs are affordable." Hyde-Smith supports repealing and replacing Obamacare.
Espy has also heavily criticized the Trump administration's mounting trade war with China. Beijing's retaliatory tariffs, levied in response to duties imposed by Trump, targeted products in key agricultural states such as Mississippi.
In October, Hyde-Smith said the state can tolerate some temporary disruption as the president seeks better trade deals, but added that it cannot go on "forever."
The senator has cast herself as a conservative, pro-Trump lawmaker. In her short time in the Senate, she has voted with the president's priorities 100 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight.
Espy last week challenged the incumbent to three debates. Hyde-Smith responded that she would participate in one debate, but it is not clear yet whether the candidates can reach an agreement on format.