Thomas Graning / AP
The last run of the 2018 Senate was expected to be a drowsy affair, really a formality, with a second round of special election in the deep red of Mississippi. Instead, the race has changed in recent days thanks to the multiple setbacks of the Republican Party candidate who have improved the state's history of racial violence.
Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith was appointed to the post earlier this year after Republican Party chairman Thad Cochran resigned for health reasons. While she remains the favorite in Tuesday's election, her mistakes gave an opportunity to former Democratic congressman and Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy. If he won, Espy would become the first black senator in the state since Reconstruction.
Earlier this month, Hyde-Smith was captured in a video talking to a supporter. In an apparent effort to praise him, she told breeder Colin Hutchinson: "If he invited me to a public hanging, I would be in the front row."
That choice of words evokes somber memories for many. Mississippi, where 35 percent of the electorate is African-American, had the most lynchings of any state in the post-Civil War and Jim Crow times, according to the NAACP, and racial tensions persist in some places. Groups of black voters are working to attract voters as a result of their statements.
Hyde-Smith largely avoided the comments until his only debate with Espy last week, where he offered a quasi-apology, saying he regretted "anyone who was offended by my comments" and had tried "not to have ill will". But he also blamed Espy and the Democrats, saying his comments "were taken, twisted and used as a political weapon against me by my opponent."
Since the controversy, Hyde-Smith has remained aloof and has refused to give more details about his comments or apologies. But the political action committees of the big corporations have withdrawn their support and have asked for their donations to be returned, including Walmart, AT & T, Pfizer and Major League Baseball.
Those comments are not the only ones that have raised questions about Hyde-Smith and race relations. The Facebook photos of 2014 also appeared in Hyde-Smith touring the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, with a caption that read: "The best of Mississippi history!"
As state senator, Hyde-Smith "promoted a measure that praised a Confederate soldier's effort to" defend his homeland "and promoted a revisionist view of the Civil War" as "War Between States," according to CNN.
And the Jackson Free Press reported over the weekend that Hyde-Smith had attended a private white school, one of many founded after the Supreme Court ordered the schools to separate as a way to get around the mandate of the school. High court to integrate public schools. She also sent her daughter to a similar school.
Trump made two stops before the election in Mississippi on Monday to try to accelerate Republican voters for Hyde-Smith. It remains popular there, and led to the state by 18 points in 2016.
"I think it will be a great day for Cindy, but do not risk it," Trump warned a crowd in Tupelo. "That has happened many times before, that never works well, just assume that you have to vote."
Trump also warned that a Democratic victory by Espy could "revoke" the gains made by Republicans in the Senate earlier this month.
"We can not allow Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to revoke that victory by winning the state of Mississippi," Trump said.
Hyde-Smith has clung to Trump at every turn, touring the state on a bus that has a large image of the two stuck in one side. During last week's debate, he bragged about how he will support his agenda and in his short time in the Senate he has voted for the priorities of his administration 100 percent of the time.
He also criticized Espy for his previous lobbying work for former Cote d'Ivoire president Laurent Gbagbo, who is on trial for crimes against humanity. His campaign said Espy ended the consulting agreement because of Gbagbo's record.
Espy has tried to capitalize on the comments and errors of Hyde-Smith. In one ad, a narrator says: "We can not afford a senator to embarrass us and reinforce the stereotypes we have worked so hard to overcome." And in last week's debate, he mocked her for "talking about public hangings and voter suppression," saying "I will not go back to yesteryear."
Despite the partisan biases of Mississippi, the Democrats just have to look to the side to see a possible path to victory. Last year, Democrat Doug Jones was able to change a seat in the Republican-controlled Senate in Alabama after Republican candidate Roy Moore was accused of sexual misconduct and aggression for decades. But even with those accusations about Moore, Jones only prevailed in a very limited way.
If Hyde-Smith prevails, Republicans will have added a two-seat network to their majority in the Senate next January, defeating Democratic incumbents in Florida, Missouri, Indiana and North Dakota, but losing the GOP seats in Arizona and Nevada. That would give them a 53-47 seat advantage, still slim in a chamber where 60 votes are often needed to advance the legislation.
But if Espy can get an upset, Senate Republicans will only get one seat, and they will meet with the same 52-48 seats they had before Alabama's special elections last December.