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Hyde-Smith projected to win racially charged runoff, preserving GOP's Senate majority

JACKSON, Miss. - Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R, is projected to win a runoff election Tuesday night, beating Democratic opponent Mike Espy and overcoming charges of racism and misplaced pride in Mississippi's Confederate past to become the state's fir...

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President Donald Trump, right, and Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) participate in a roundtable discussion on the FIRST STEP Act in Gulfport, Miss., on Monday, Nov. 26, 2018. Trump returned to the campaign trail to offer an unabashed endorsement of a Republican candidate under fire for comments that critics said embraced the state’s segregationist history. (Sarah Silbiger/Copyright 2018 The New York Times)

JACKSON, Miss. - Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R, is projected to win a runoff election Tuesday night, beating Democratic opponent Mike Espy and overcoming charges of racism and misplaced pride in Mississippi's Confederate past to become the state's first elected female senator.

Hyde-Smith's victory, coming after her comments about joining a supporter on the front row of a public hanging, bolsters the Republican majority in the Senate and illustrates President Donald Trump's ability to rally his supporters behind a struggling campaign.

With 76 percent of precincts reporting, Hyde-Smith led with 56 percent of the vote, to 44 percent for Espy.

Espy, who was attempting to become the state's first African-American senator since Reconstruction, ran the most competitive Democratic campaign in decades but fell short in his efforts to bring historic numbers of black voters to the polls.

Throughout the campaign, he tried to walk a fine line on matters of race, attempting to galvanize black voters in a state with a greater proportion of them than any other, while not alienating white voters who vote in disproportionately high numbers.

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Republicans had braced themselves for a possible loss, even in a state that Trump carried by 18 points in 2016 and where Democrats have not won a Senate race since 1982. But Hyde-Smith's win proved how solidly conservative the state is, and how big the challenges still are for Democrats.

Throughout the day Tuesday, many precincts reported lines that were steady but slow. Yet as initial results streamed in, the figures were approaching the turnout levels from three weeks ago, in the Nov. 6 midterms, an indication of the attention and excitement around an election five days after Thanksgiving.

The country's heaviest political hitters sought to influence the outcome of the final federal race of the 2018 midterms, with Trump hosting twin rallies here Monday and former president Barack Obama sending out a robo-call to urge his supporters to vote.

"My name may not be on the ballot," Obama said. "But our future is. And that's why I believe this is one of the most important elections in our lifetime."

Republicans remained tense about the outcome, privately griping about Hyde-Smith, who was appointed to the seat in April, and a gaffe-filled campaign that has provided an opening to Espy. It has also reignited passions in a state with a dark history of racism.

Trump himself has also become far more engaged, calling Hyde-Smith last week to express concern about her flailing campaign. He urged her to apologize for her comment about being willing to join a supporter in the front row of a public hanging, according to a person briefed on the call. The next night, reading from notes she had before her, she offered a conditional apology to anyone who might have been offended.

The outcome will not alter control of the Senate, but a Hyde-Smith win seals a 53-47 Republican majority in the chamber.

Hyde-Smith's strategy over the past few weeks has been mostly to avoid the media - leaving through back doors and jogging past cars to avoid interacting with reporters - and tie herself as closely as possible to Trump.

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She rode around in a bus dubbed the "MAGA Wagon" and touted how she voted with Trump "100 percent of the time." When the state Republican Party sent out literature urging supporters to vote, it mentioned only Trump and never referenced Hyde-Smith, the person on the ballot.

"I know one thing: If she loses, I'll be blamed, and if she wins, I'll be given no credit," Trump told Washington Post reporters in an interview Tuesday. "That's the only thing I know."

In the first of his rallies with Hyde-Smith on Monday, Trump cast Espy - who hails from a prominent African American family that has lived in Mississippi for generations - as an unknown quantity who is out of step with the state.

"How does he fit in with Mississippi?" Trump asked. "How does he fit in?"

Espy, after casting his ballot Tuesday morning, responded by recounting how his grandfather spent a lifetime helping the state's black residents, including by founding a hospital so women would not give birth in the cotton fields. He was born in that hospital in 1953.

"He said, 'Who is Mike Espy?' " Espy said. "Well, Mike Espy was a member of Congress from Mississippi - four times. . . . I was the first black congressman since the Civil War. Mike Espy was secretary of agriculture . . . first black in the nation to ever hold that post."

Still, Espy often struggled to address accusations of ethical lapses. He resigned his position in President Bill Clinton's Cabinet amid an investigation into accusations that he improperly accepted gifts. He was acquitted on 30 corruption charges, but Republicans ran ads calling him "too corrupt for the Clintons."

He was also criticized for a $750,000 lobbying contract with former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo, who is being tried in the International Criminal Court after being accused of crimes against humanity. Espy said he rescinded the contract when he discovered the despot was "a bad guy."

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Tuesday's winner will fill the last two years of the term of longtime Republican senator Thad Cochran, who resigned because of health problems, and have to run again in 2020.

On Tuesday morning, a steady stream of voters entered Pleasant Grove Baptist Church to cast their ballots in a Jackson suburb that has been a Republican stronghold. By midmorning, turnout was about two-thirds of what it was three weeks ago. Most said they were unsatisfied with their choices.

"It's a circus; that's what it is," said Emily Johnson, a 65-year-old retired cook who voted for Espy.

"The only reason I'm voting for her is because she's a Republican," said Jerry Gullette, a 58-year-old owner of several Napa auto body shops. "She's the best of the worst. I could do a better job than her, honestly."

Nonetheless, he voted for Hyde-Smith.

Most of her supporters shrugged off her public-hanging comments. They may have been ill-suited and insensitive, they said, but that didn't mean she was racist.

"They used to hang horse thieves back in the day," said Ben Schuler, who said he reliably votes for Republicans. "I wish she hadn't said it, but I don't think she was aiming it at any race."

For Janice Sandefur, a 60-year-old clinical social worker, the election resurrected memories of the all-white school that her parents sent her to, just like Hyde-Smith, where the mascot was the Confederates.

She said she's ashamed that the Mississippi state flag still has the Confederate emblem on it.

"We are so locked into the concept of tradition as in heritage; I'm sure I had relatives who fought in the Civil War. And I'm really sorry they bought into that," she said. "We still do have a very divided state. I'm hoping we're going to rise above this in my lifetime. I really do."

This article was written by Matt Viser, a reporter for The Washington Post.

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