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 the election in her own right. Mr. Espy, a former cabinet secretary under President Bill Clinton, was running a strong underdog campaign but appeared highly unlikely to overcome Mississippi’s strongly conservative inclination. 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 five percentage points, three people briefed on the data said.