The final U.S. Senate contest of the year is being settled Tuesday in the southern state of Mississippi, with voters choosing between the incumbent Republican, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, and her Democratic challenger, Mike Espy, in an election that has recalled images of the state's racist past.
The runoff election in the deeply conservative, Republican stronghold is being held because neither Hyde-Smith, who is white, nor Espy, who is black, won a majority of votes in a four-way race held three weeks ago.
Hyde-Smith, appointed to the seat when Sen. Thad Cochran resigned for health reasons, and Espy, a former U.S. agriculture secretary, are looking to fill the remaining two years of Cochran's term and would face another election in 2020.
Red state, confederate past
Hyde-Smith appeared headed to winning the contest, in part because Mississippi has a long history of electing Republicans and has not elected a black senator for more than a century. But comments she made during the run-off campaign raised doubts about the outcome, prompting President Donald Trump to stage two election-eve rallies in the state to show his support.
On Tuesday morning, he tweeted, "We need Cindy Hyde-Smith in Washington."
Mississippi was one of 13 southern U.S. states that seceded from the United States in the 1860s over the rights of white plantation owners to possess slaves, declaring themselves the Confederate States of America. The secession led to the country's deadly Civil War that ended with the South's defeat and surrender in 1865.
But racial disputes endured for decades in Mississippi, with lynchings of black residents and segregation of the races in virtually all aspects of life, including schools, restaurants and other public accommodations, until the 1960s.
Hyde-Smith drew quick scorn when she said that if a political supporter invited her "to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row." She apologized "to anyone offended" by the remark, but photos of her also surfaced of her holding Confederate memorabilia from the Civil War.
In another campaign comment, she suggested "maybe we want to make it just a little more difficult" for liberal college students to vote.
Hyde-Smith contended that Espy had misconstrued her lynching remarks. But the Democrat rebuffed her.
"No one twisted your comments because your comments were live, it came out of your mouth. I don't know what's in your heart, but we all know what came out of your mouth. It's caused our state harm. It's given our state another black eye that we don't need," he said.
On Monday, state authorities removed two nooses and six hate signs they found on the grounds of the Mississippi State Capitol.
Republicans have depicted Espy as out of touch with the state, where he once served as a congressman, and lacking in judgment. He once faced corruption charges — receiving favors while he was the country's agriculture chief in the 1990s — although he was acquitted.
If Hyde-Smith wins, Republicans will have a 53-47 majority in the Senate, compared to the current 51-49 edge. An Espy win would limit the Republican gain to a single seat. Democrats took control of the House of Representatives in the November 6 voting for the first time in eight years, gaining at least 38 seats, with two tight contests still undecided.