JACKSON, Miss. — A special election for the Senate in Mississippi has become a test of racial and partisan politics in the Deep South, as a Republican woman, Cindy Hyde-Smith, and an African-American Democrat, Mike Espy, compete for the last Senate seat still up for grabs in the 2018 midterm campaign.
Ms. Hyde-Smith, who was appointed to a seat in the Senate earlier this year, seemed until recently to be on a glide path toward winning election in her own right. Mr. Espy, a former cabinet secretary under President Clinton, was running a strong underdog campaign but appeared highly unlikely to overcome Mississippi’s strongly conservative lean.
Yet the trajectory of the election was thrown into doubt last week when a video was circulated showing Ms. Hyde-Smith, 59, praising a supporter by telling him that if he invited her “to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”
Facing an uproar in a state divided by race and deeply scarred by a history of lynchings carried out against African-Americans, Ms. Hyde-Smith has since retreated from the campaign trail, ducking reporters’ questions and declining to apologize. A former state agriculture commissioner, Ms. Hyde-Smith has instead pursued a strategy aimed at shoring up her support with conservative whites, and she enlisted President Trump to campaign for her on the eve of a Nov. 27 runoff vote.
That may be enough for Ms. Hyde-Smith to secure victory in a solid-red state. But in Jackson and Washington, her apparent inability to take the self-inflicted controversy in hand has unnerved Republicans and stoked Democratic hopes for an upset. A private Republican poll last week found Ms. Hyde-Smith’s lead over Mr. Espy had narrowed to just 5 percentage points, three people briefed on the data said.
Ms. Hyde-Smith has resisted private appeals from Republicans who have urged her to apologize. On a conference call with political donors last week — hosted by the group Winning for Women, which raises money for female Republicans — Ms. Hyde-Smith struggled to allay potential backers’ concerns about the race, according to four people familiar with the discussion, who insisted on anonymity to discuss a private call.
When one participant asked Ms. Hyde-Smith why she would not simply apologize, the senator offered a meandering and vague answer, saying that she was considering an apology but worried that offering one would only further fuel the issue.
The senator’s weeklong retreat has drawn criticism from voters in both parties that she seems either insensitive to her comment’s racial implications, or simply incapable of grappling with them as a public figure.
“We all say things you don’t think about, but when you refuse to apologize? That’s bad bad,” said Verna Lee, 69, a Democrat, while Mr. Espy was knocking on doors on Sunday in Jackson’s Presidential Hills neighborhood. She had just left a church service while he campaigned in her neighborhood.
Outside the Mississippi State Supreme Court in downtown on Monday, Brad Feaster, a Republican voter, said he thought the “public hanging” comment was an off-the-cuff mistake. He said he will still likely vote for Ms. Hyde-Smith in the runoff, but he knows others who are reconsidering it.
“It would’ve been so much better if she apologized,” Mr. Feaster said. “It would’ve helped smooth over the waters. She’s a rookie, though.”
“I thought it was inappropriate, but we don’t know the context of it,” he said. “Unless something changes dramatically, she still has my vote.”
Mr. Espy, who is seeking to become the state’s first black senator since Reconstruction, has seen a surge of interest in his campaign from Democrats in Mississippi and beyond. National party groups and super PACs have swarmed into the race, and two prominent African-American Democrats who are likely to run for president, Senators Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, have volunteered their help to Mr. Espy.
The contest went to a runoff when none of four candidates received the 50 percent of votes needed to win outright. Strategists in both parties believe Ms. Hyde-Smith remains the favorite: She was the top vote-getter in the first round, slightly outpacing Mr. Espy even though there was another Republican — Chris McDaniel, a divisive, strongly conservative state senator — on the ballot.
No Democrat has won a Senate race in Mississippi since 1982.
Turnout for the runoff vote remains an enormous question mark. And Ms. Hyde-Smith now faces a fluid array of political forces, including outrage among African-Americans, discomfort among educated whites who are sensitive to the way their state is perceived nationally — and even unrest on the far right, as disappointed supporters of Mr. McDaniel hasten to depict her as a political failure.
“People know there’s a runoff. They know we’re competitive, they know that we can win — and now, there’s a passion,” Mr. Espy said in an interview. “It started on the night of the election, but it got more intense as people learned what she said.”
If Ms. Hyde-Smith’s conduct has put her campaign in jeopardy, Mr. Espy has been grappling with baggage of his own. Republicans have assailed him for working as a lobbyist, and for having been indicted in the 1990s on corruption charges of which he was eventually acquitted. On social media and in advertisements, Republicans have tried to tie the moderate Mr. Espy to liberals, including the billionaire donor George Soros and former President Barack Obama.
And Ms. Hyde-Smith has enjoyed forceful support from Gov. Phil Bryant, a rural conservative like herself. Mr. Bryant, who appointed Ms. Hyde-Smith to the Senate, has been dismissive of the backlash to her comment about hanging. He declared last week that the abortion rate among African-Americans was a more important issue, likening it to “genocide.”
Mr. Trump recently announced he will hold two rallies in the state on the day before the election, a boon for Ms. Hyde-Smith, 59, who was appointed when the longtime Senator Thad Cochran resigned.
“Our campaign is working hard for a big Election Day turnout, so President Trump’s visit the day before the runoff will be a good boost,” she said after the White House announcement. She did not return multiple requests to comment for this story. Ms. Hyde-Smith has previously said the “public hanging” comment was blown out of proportion.
Former Senator Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican who served as Senate majority leader, said he was confident Ms. Hyde-Smith would prevail. But he acknowledged that the comment about hanging had “certainly got her in trouble.”
Mr. Lott, 77, said that he knew that as well as anyone: He was forced to step down as the Senate’s top Republican in 2002 after delivering a 100th-birthday toast to Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina senator who is now deceased, in which Mr. Lott spoke favorably of Mr. Thurmond’s 1948 run for president as an avowed segregationist.
“This gaffe she had — she was not malicious in her intentions, I’m positive,” Mr. Lott said of Ms. Hyde-Smith, adding: “It caused a lot of extra criticism.”
The controversy has emboldened state Democrats, who had supported Mr. Espy’s campaign this year with only limited optimism for success. Mr. Espy, 64, has told donors in private events that he views himself as a “Mississippi first” candidate, rather than a partisan national Democrat.
Like Mr. Jones, Mr. Espy has tried to focus his campaign on health care policy and securing federal funds for the state.
His candidacy has given the party a standard-bearer with name recognition and fund-raising prowess in a state where Democrats seldom contest Senate races. As he knocked on doors Sunday in Jackson, Mr. Espy, who is from nearby Yazoo City, ran into residents who had attended his same church, as well as the wife of his former barber, and a few who didn’t recognize him on sight.
Mr. Espy’s advisers have told political donors that they believe he needs to mobilize black voters in force and win about a quarter of white voters to defeat Ms. Hyde-Smith, a near-herculean task in a state where the two political parties are split chiefly along racial lines. Mr. Espy carried just 15 percent of whites on Nov. 6, according to exit polls.
“A big section of black voters would have to turn out, like 2008 with Barack Obama,” said Jarvis Dortch, a Democratic state representative in a Jackson-area district who called the task difficult, but not impossible. “We’re going to have to see moderate white folks in Mississippi, enough of them, say: that’s not how we want to be represented, that’s not how we want to be depicted.”
This is where Mr. Espy’s supporters hope the controversial statements by Ms. Hyde-Smith have created a political opening. Last week, a second video was released, in which Ms. Hyde-Smith appeared to joke about voter suppression. Her spokesman called the video “selectively edited,” and said it was clear Ms. Hyde-Smith’s comments were in jest.
Campaigning in Jackson on Sunday with Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the city’s popular progressive mayor and a rising Democrat in the state, Mr. Espy rarely mentioned the comments — but the voters almost uniformly did.
The partisan and racial cast of the special election represents a stark contrast to the last time Ms. Hyde-Smith’s Senate seat was contested. In 2014, Mr. Cochran turned back a ferocious primary challenge from Mr. McDaniel by building a political coalition that crossed traditional political boundaries, encouraging mainline Republicans and African-American Democrats alike to vote against Mr. McDaniel in the state’s open-primary system.
But Mr. Cochran had decades-long relationships with key black leaders in the state, and a reputation as a reasonable dealmaker. Ms. Hyde-Smith enjoys no comparable reservoir of good will.