Democrat Mike Espy aims to upset GOP Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in a Mississippi Senate race roiled by racial controversy and Trump's trade war

Key Points
  • Democrat Mike Espy aims to upset Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in the Mississippi Senate special election runoff.
  • Hyde-Smith's comments that evoked the state's history of lynchings appear to have made the race more competitive. 
  • The race will not affect control of the Senate, but it will help to determine how wide the Republican majority is in January. 
Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss, at the Capitol on June 26, 2018.
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call Group | Getty Images

Backlash over a senator's remark that reopened racial wounds and the GOP's vulnerabilities on health care and trade have Democrats hoping they can pull off another Senate election shocker in the Deep South on Tuesday.

The U.S. Senate special election runoff in deep red Mississippi pits Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith against Democratic former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy. The candidates are vying to replace longtime GOP Sen. Thad Cochran, whom Hyde-Smith was appointed to replace earlier this year as failing health forced him to leave office.

The state's political makeups give Hyde-Smith an edge. President Donald Trump won Mississippi by about 18 percentage points in 2016. Mississippi's last Democratic senator, John Stennis, a pro-segregation lawmaker who represented a bygone era of Southern Democratic politics, left office in 1989.

But Democrats see an opening – however small -- after Democratic Sen. Doug Jones' upset special election victory in Alabama last year. Hyde-Smith's campaign trail comment about attending a "public hanging" while running against Espy, a black man, evoked Mississippi's history of lynchings and put her on the defensive in the campaign's final weeks. On Saturday, CNN reported that Hyde-Smith once introduced a resolution praising a Confederate soldier for "defend[ing] his homeland."

For his part, the Democrat has tried to press an advantage on GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and Trump's tariff policy, which affects a state with a large agricultural presence.

Democrat Mike Espy answers a question during a televised Mississippi U.S. Senate debate with his opponent appointed U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. 
Rogelio V. Solis | Pool | AP

This month's midterm elections have already decided control of the Senate. As of now, Republicans will hold at least a 52-47 advantage in the chamber when the new Congress starts in January. Still, an Espy victory would narrow the party's margin for error in the chamber as it tries to confirm federal judges and potentially pass more changes to tax and health care policy. Democrats' control of the House in the next Congress will already limit the Senate GOP's legislative ability.

Republicans have projected confidence about holding the Mississippi seat even as they take steps to shore up support for Hyde-Smith. Trump will hold two rallies in the state on Monday as he aims to motivate GOP voters. The Senate Republican campaign arm has also spent more than $1 million on media in the state this month.

Hyde-Smith narrowly beat Espy in the first round of voting on Nov. 6, even as a third major candidate, Republican state Sen. Chris McDaniel, drew about 16 percent of the vote.

Who really won the midterms? Why both parties can claim victories
Who really won the midterms?

Still, the senator's comments and her campaign's handling of them could help to make the contest closer than Republicans would like.

"I think the public hanging comments and probably more importantly Hyde-Smith's refusal to apologize and fumbling of her statement about it has energized Espy's campaign and supporters," said Jonathan Winburn, an associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi. "I think the comments have hurt Hyde-Smith and made some of her supporters and donors less likely to at least publicly support her."

At least six major companies including Walmart and Pfizer have asked for Hyde-Smith's campaign to return contributions, which the candidate has so far shown no intention of doing. Over the weekend, Major League Baseball became the latest entity to request that Hyde-Smith return a donation made to her campaign.

ESPN tweet

The senator faced criticism for her initial refusal to address the comments beyond a short written statement, even after reporters pressed her publicly about it multiple times. At the candidates' only debate, which took place Tuesday, she apologized to "anyone who was offended" by her remarks and claimed they were "twisted" and used as a "political weapon" against her.

Espy said Tuesday that her comments gave the state "another black eye that we don't need" and "rejuvenated old stereotypes." In an ad released this week, his campaign targeted the hanging comments and separate remarks where she joked about making it "just a little more difficult" for "liberal folks" to vote.

"We can't afford a senator who embarrasses us," the ad says in part.

Trump, for his part, has not wavered in his support for Hyde-Smith. He has called her comments a "jest" and said she is a "tremendous woman."

Health care and trade war play a role

Hyde-Smith's comments have dominated the race's final days, but policies pursued by Trump and congressional Republicans have also played a major role. Espy joined Democratic candidates this year in arguing the GOP's efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act will jeopardize the law's popular protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions.

Hyde-Smith was not in the Senate last year when her party tried and failed to scrap Obamacare. She supports repealing the health care law but says she wants to maintain the pre-existing conditions provisions.

Espy, who served as Agriculture secretary under President Bill Clinton, has also tried to highlight trade issues during his bid for an upset. He has criticized the escalating series of tariffs levied by the U.S. and China, which have led to duties on crops such as soybeans and contributed to falling agricultural prices.

Trump has called his tariffs on $250 billion in Chinese goods necessary as he tries to strike a new trade deal, crack down on alleged Chinese theft of intellectual property and reduce the U.S. trade deficit with China.

On Wednesday, Espy held an event with Mississippi farmers critical of the tariffs, one of whom his campaign highlighted as a Republican who plans to support the Democrat.

"Our farmers know I will always put Mississippi first, no matter what a political party or person says," Espy said in a statement Wednesday. "Right now, that means speaking out about these tariffs which are so harmful to our state."

Hyde-Smith has supported Trump's effort to secure a new trade agreement with China but expressed concerns about the trade tensions lasting too long.

The senator has tried to put Espy on his heels by tying him to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and congressional Democrats. Espy has aimed to cast himself as an independent voice who will not consider party when making decisions.

He has also faced criticism for $750,000 he received in 2011 for lobbying for Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo's government in 2011. The former Ivorian leader stands accused of crimes against humanity after violence erupted when he refused to cede power following a 2010 election. On Tuesday, Espy said he ended his contract after finding out "how bad the guy was."

Enthusiasm vs. expectations

Despite the race's intrigue, voter turnout will likely fall from the record levels seen in this month's midterms. To win, Espy would likely need to create a turnout differential between Democrats and Republicans — which the furor over Hyde-Smith's hanging remarks could help to drive, Winburn said.

An Associated Press survey found about a third of the Mississippi electorate is African-American. The voting bloc may need to make up even a larger portion of Tuesday's pool, 40 percent, for Espy to have a chance, the wire service reported.

Still, Trump's presence in the state could help to fuel Republican engagement and mitigate a potential Democratic enthusiasm advantage, Winburn added. An NBC News/Marist poll last month found 60 percent of likely voters in Mississippi approve of the president, including 45 percent who strongly approve. To compare, the president's national approval rating was nearly 44 percent as of Friday afternoon, according to a Real Clear Politics polling average.

In a state where 93 percent of Republican likely voters approve of Trump, according to the NBC/Marist survey, winning over GOP voters may prove difficult for Espy.

Ultimately, Winburn expects Espy to make the race closer than was expected even a few weeks ago — even if he falls short in conservative Mississippi.

"If Espy were to pull out the upset, I still think it would be because of turnout differentials rather than Republicans defecting to Espy," he said.

Subscribe to CNBC on YouTube.