(JACKSON, Miss.) — The last U.S. Senate race of the midterms was coming to a close Tuesday as Mississippi residents chose between a white Republican Senate appointee whose “public hanging” comments angered many people and a black Democrat who was agriculture secretary when Bill Clinton was in the White House.
History will be made either way: Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, 59, would be the first woman elected to Congress from Mississippi, and Democrat Mike Espy, 64, would be the state’s first African-American U.S. senator since Reconstruction.
A spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office, Leah Rupp Smith, said observers from the office were seeing “steady but slow” turnout the first few hours, but the pace picked up late in the day, with estimates that 30 to 40 percent of registered voters cast ballots. Polls were closing at 7 p.m. local time, although people already in line at that time were allowed to stay and vote.
Espy cast his ballot at a Baptist church in the Jackson suburb of Ridgeland, while Hyde-Smith voted at a volunteer fire department in Brookhaven, about 55 miles (89 kilometers) south of Jackson.
Espy kept to a theme he’s emphasized repeatedly: He’d be a senator for all of Mississippi. He said that to win, he can’t just rely on African-American voters. He needs white voters, as well.
“I don’t talk to them as white voters. I talk to them as Mississippians — Mississippi young people who want to reduce their debt coming out of college, Mississippi young people who want to stay in this state, and not go to Atlanta and Dallas to get a good job,” Espy said after voting.
Hyde-Smith hugged supporters at her precinct.
“We have worked very hard, and we feel very good,” Hyde-Smith said.
Mississippi’s past of racist violence became a dominant theme after a video showed Hyde-Smith praising a supporter in early November by saying, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” She said it was “an exaggerated expression of regard.” More than a week after the video’s release, she said she apologized to “anyone that was offended by my comments,” but also said the remark was used as a “weapon” against her.
Hyde-Smith was seen in another video talking about making voting difficult for “liberal folks,” and a photo circulated of her wearing a replica Confederate military hat during a 2014 visit to Beauvoir, a beachside museum in Biloxi, Mississippi, that was the last home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
Critics said Hyde-Smith’s comments and Confederate regalia showed callous indifference in a state with a 38 percent black population, and some corporate donors, including Walmart, requested refunds on campaign contributions to her.
But Elizabeth Gallinghouse, 84, from the coastal town of Diamondhead, voted for Hyde-Smith and said neither the “hanging” comments nor Hyde-Smith’s appearance in the Confederate hat bothered her.
“So many things are taken out of context,” Gallinghouse said. “The fact that she toured Jefferson Davis’s house — you or I could have done the same thing. They said, ‘Put this cap on. Hold this gun.’ It was a fun time. She wasn’t trying to send any messages.”
Mississippi — which still has the Confederate battle emblem on its state flag — has a history of racially motivated lynchings.
Angie Thomas is author of the young adult novel “The Hate U Give,” about the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer. Thomas, 31, cast a ballot for Espy at the same precinct where he voted.
She said Hyde-Smith’s remark about hanging “revealed to a lot of people that Mississippi still has a long way to go. Sometimes, race is something that people don’t want to discuss because it’s so uncomfortable. But, if nothing else, this has made us realize that we still have so much work to do.”
Hyde-Smith was in her second term as Mississippi’s elected agriculture commissioner when Republican Gov. Phil Bryant chose her to temporarily succeed longtime Republican Sen. Thad Cochran, who retired in April amid health concerns. Tuesday’s winner will serve the last two of Cochran’s six-year term.
Hyde-Smith has campaigned as an unwavering supporter of Trump, who campaigned with her in Tupelo and Gulfport.
With the Mississippi election undecided, Republicans hold 52 of 100 Senate seats.
Mississippi last elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in 1982. Espy is trying for the same kind of longshot win fellow Democrat Doug Jones had nearly a year ago in neighboring Alabama, another conservative Deep South state where Republicans hold most statewide offices.
If white voters outnumber black voters 2-to-1 on Tuesday, Espy would have to win 30 percent or more of white votes, a tough task in a state with possibly the most racially polarized electorate in the country. But if black voters rise to 40 percent of the electorate and Espy wins 9 out of 10, he needs less than a quarter of white votes for victory.
Federal and state authorities are investigating seven nooses found hanging from trees outside the Mississippi Capitol on Monday, along with handwritten signs that referred to the Senate runoff and the state’s history of lynching.
Hyde-Smith’s campaign hammered Espy for his $750,000 lobbying contract in 2011 with the Cocoa and Coffee Board of the Ivory Coast. She noted that the country’s ex-president, Laurent Gbagbo, is being tried in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
Espy, an attorney, said: “I found out later that this guy, the president, was a really bad guy. I resigned the contract.”
Espy resigned the Cabinet post in 1994 amid a special counsel investigation that accused him of improperly accepting gifts. He was tried and acquitted on 30 corruption charges, but the Mississippi Republican Party ran an ad this year that called Espy “too corrupt for the Clintons” and “too liberal for Mississippi.”
Espy said he refused to accept plea deals because, “I was so not guilty, I was innocent.”