Mississippi voters head to the polls Tuesday in the final Senate election of the 2018 midterms, a contest shaped by racial issues that will determine how wide the Republicans Senate majority will be in January.
GOP Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith hopes to fend off an upset from Democratic former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy in the red state. Republicans aim to avoid their second shocker in the Deep South within the last year, after Democratic Sen. Doug Jones won a Senate special election in deep red Alabama in December.
The winner of Tuesday's Senate special election runoff will serve the remainder of retired GOP Sen. Thad Cochran's term, which extends through 2020. Hyde-Smith was appointed to replace the ailing lawmaker earlier this year. But her remarks that evoked Mississippi's history of racist violence — and criticism that she did not properly explain or apologize for them — have made the contest in the conservative state more competitive than Republicans would like.
President Donald Trump offered some last minute help to Hyde-Smith on Monday with rallies in Mississippi, a state he carried by about 18 percentage points in 2016. He defended the GOP senator for her comments that surfaced earlier this month about attending a "public hanging," which awakened memories of lynchings in the state and prompted numerous Hyde-Smith campaign donors to ask for a refund.
Espy, who is black, has said her comments gave the state "another black eye that we don't need" and "rejuvenated old stereotypes." An Espy campaign ad that targets Hyde-Smith's comments also says that "we can't afford a senator who embarrasses us."
During his stops in the state Monday, Trump told reporters that he knows "where [Hyde-Smith's] heart is, and her heart is good." He also noted that the senator apologized for her remarks. At a debate earlier this month, Hyde-Smith claimed the comment was "twisted," and she apologized to "anyone who was offended." But she has not answered repeated media questions about the remarks since.
On Tuesday morning, Trump took to Twitter to again urge Mississippians to vote for Hyde-Smith. He has a serious interest in the GOP keeping the seat: A victory would give Republicans a 53-47 majority in the Senate, which would help him to confirm conservative judicial nominees and push for pieces of his economic agenda in Congress. Democrats will have control of the House in the next Congress, which will make it tougher for Trump to pursue his policy goals.
Political experts in the state have said Espy likely needs Democrats to turn out in significantly larger numbers than Republicans to win. While Hyde-Smith's remarks may motivate Democrats, particularly the black voters who make up about a third of the state's electorate, Trump's visit may help to even the enthusiasm gap. Sixty percent of likely voters in Mississippi approve of the president, including 93 percent of Republican likely voters, according to an NBC News/Marist poll last month.
Espy, a former representative from Mississippi and Agriculture secretary under President Bill Clinton, hopes to become the first black man to serve as a senator from his state since Reconstruction. Mississippi's last Democratic senator — pro-segregation John Stennis — left office in 1989.
On Monday, Trump tried to cast Espy as a bad fit to represent the state.
"How does he fit in with Mississippi? I mean, how does he fit in?" Trump asked during a rally in Tupelo.
Republicans have framed the Democrat as a liberal who will only side with his party's leadership. Espy has called himself an independent-minded Democrat who will vote for Mississippi's interests rather than his party's.
On the policy side of the race, Espy has slammed Hyde-Smith over GOP attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which could jeopardize the law's popular protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions. Hyde-Smith was not a senator last year when Republicans tried to overhaul the health care system. However, she supports repealing the health-care law.
Espy has also attacked the GOP over Trump's tariff policy, which has affected farmers in the U.S. due to the effect retaliatory duties have had on crop prices. Agriculture is Mississippi's largest industry, according to the state's Department of Agriculture and Commerce.
"Our farmers know I will always put Mississippi first, no matter what a political party or person says," Espy said in a statement last week. "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. 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. He has threatened to put duties on another $267 billion in Chinese goods if he and Chinese President Xi Jinping cannot reach a deal at the G-20 summit in Argentina later this week.
Trump tried to leverage his popularity in the state Monday by tying Hyde-Smith to his agenda. He touted in particular his efforts to crack down on illegal immigration — an issue he has played up in recent days as he tries to secure funding for his proposed border wall before Dec. 7.
"She votes to make America great again and she votes for America first," Trump said of Hyde-Smith in Tupelo. "Cindy is so important, so respected, we've got to send her back."
— CNBC's Christina Wilkie contributed to this report