Cindy Hyde-Smith tops Mike Espy after racially tinged Senate campaign

Cindy Hyde-Smith overcame racially-tinged verbal gaffes late in her campaign to retain her U.S. Senate seat from Mississippi on Tuesday night, defeating Mike Espy, who was seeking to become the state’s first black senator since Reconstruction.

Hyde-Smith, 59, a former Democrat and former state agriculture commissioner, becomes the first woman from Mississippi to be elected to Congress.

She was leading Espy 55 to 44 percent with 77 percent of the state’s precincts reporting, according to the Associated Press.

“The reason we won is because Mississippians know me, they know my heart,” Hyde-Smith said Tuesday night. “You’ve handed me your vote, you’ve handed me a victory, you’ve put confidence in me, I’m not going to let you down.”

Espy, addressing his supporters in Jackson, Mississippi, said “I am proud of the historic campaign we ran and grateful for the support we received from across Mississippi.”

“We built the largest grassroots organization our state has seen in a generation,” he added.

Hyde-Smith’s win over Espy, who was also a former three-term congressman, came a day after campaign rallies by President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in Biloxi and Tupelo.

The race had appeared to narrow after comments the senator made rekindled memories of Mississippi’s history of lynching blacks and voter suppression.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith to the Senate in April to replace Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Mississippi, who retired for health reasons.

She was supposed to enjoy an easy path to election following a Nov. 6 primary that included her, Espy and conservative Republican firebrand Chris McDaniel.

But the runoff turned into a referendum on race and Mississippi’s racial past after two videos surfaced earlier this month that thrust Hyde-Smith into controversy and put her uncomfortably in the national spotlight.

The first video showed Hyde-Smith at a campaign event earlier this month saying that she would be “on the front row” if a supporter whom she knew invited her to a “public hanging.”

The second video showed her telling a group at another campaign stop this month that “There’s a lot of liberal folks in those schools who maybe we don’t want to vote. Maybe we want to make it just a little more difficult.”

Her comments brought more scrutiny to her campaign. Politico unearthed a 2014 post on Hyde-Smith’s Facebook page that included a photo of her wearing a Confederate soldier’s hat and holding a rifle during a visit to Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library in Biloxi.

The Jackson Free Press reported that Hyde-Smith attended a so-called “segregation academy,” one of hundreds of private schools in Mississippi that were established in the 1960s and 1970s after federal courts ordered public schools to desegregate.

Hyde-Smith called her suppression comment a joke. She initially called the public hanging remark “an exaggerated expression of regard.”

A week later, she apologized for the public hanging comment but added that it was being “twisted” and “turned into a political weapon to be used against me” by Espy.

Hyde-Smith vowed Tuesday night to “represent every Mississippian” and to “work very hard, do my very best to make Mississippi proud of your U.S. Senator.”

She had the backing of the state and national Republican establishment and by Trump throughout the controversies. Trump endorsed her over McDaniel even though the challenger was the more Trump-like candidate.

But Hyde-Smith and Trump insisted that she’s a loyal supporter of the president’s agenda. She has voted with Trump 100 percent of the time, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight. And she delivered perhaps the strongest Senate floor speech supporting Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s troubled nomination.

Some Democratic and Republican analysts said Trump’s main mission Monday was to inspire McDaniel supporters. McDaniel finished a distant third in the state’s Nov. 6 primary but received 25 percent of the white vote.

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

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas