BILOXI, Miss. — President Donald Trump returned to Mississippi Monday to squash any Democratic hopes of closing out 2018 midterms with a miracle.
The president was set to hold two rallies with Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith on the eve of the runoff here to ensure his base turns out to vote in a race that was expected to be much less competitive just weeks ago. Democrats saw an opening to potentially contest the runoff after controversial remarks the Republican senator made about being first in line to attend a “public hanging.”
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Republicans responded with a massive, party-wide investment to prevent a repeat of their disastrous special election loss in Alabama last year. National money and staff from both parties flooded in as the race tightened heading into the Thanksgiving holiday.
Republicans remain confident Hyde-Smith will win, but Trump’s visit shows the party is leaving nothing to chance.
“Don’t take any chances,” Trump implored his supporters at the first rally. “You have to vote. We cannot allow Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to erode [GOP control of the Senate] by winning the great state of Mississippi.”
Trump said earlier in the day that Hyde-Smith “misspoke” and had already apologized for the “public hanging” comments. After initially declining to apologize, the Republican senator said during a debate last week that she was sorry to “anyone offended” by her remarks. She also accused Democrats of taking them out of context as a political weapon.
Espy pushed back on that accusation Monday during a campaign stop in the state capital.
“I certainly didn’t twist it because that came out of her mouth,” Espy told reporters, calling the remarks a “black eye” for the state. But he also said he wasn’t focusing on the comments except when asked about them, instead trying to focus his closing argument on health care and education.
Republicans acknowledge Hyde-Smith’s comments hurt her campaign and gave Espy the momentum needed to make the race competitive. Still, they expect a victory on Tuesday. A public poll over the weekend showed Hyde-Smith up by 10 points, and a Republican in the state said internal party data was in line with that lead as of Monday.
Former Sen. Trent Lott, who represented Mississippi for two decades, said the race is closer than Republicans hoped for, but expressed confidence that Hyde-Smith will prevail — thanks in no small part to Trump.
“When it gets that close, there is excitement on the Democratic side. A lot of money has poured in on both sides, but Trump is very popular in Mississippi,” Lott said in an interview. “Trump does get people out, he does get them fired up.”
More than 100 Republican operatives and field staff flocked to the state in the final stretch, spread out between Trump’s two rallies here and in Tupelo, in opposite corners of the state, and in the capital of Jackson. The Republican National Committee had more than 100 staffers on the ground, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent campaign staff down the stretch.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, told major donors in a conference call earlier this month that party headquarters had been emptied as staff descended on Mississippi and Florida, where a recall concluded last week, according to a person on the call.
The RNC made more than half a million voter contacts since Election Day, according to a spokesman. Staff and volunteers will have made more than 100,000 contacts in the final 24 hours of the race, the person said. The Republican effort has targeted both those who voted for Hyde-Smith on Nov. 6 as well as the 17 percent of voters who backed Chris McDaniel, the other Republican on the initial ballot.
The president’s rallies are the capstone of that field effort.
“The Tuesday after Thanksgiving is about the worst time you can have for a runoff regardless of party,” said Lucien Smith, the state GOP chairman. “People just naturally aren’t going to be focused on an election. Having the president come in the night before is fantastically helpful.”
Democrats have amassed their own large field operation in a state where they rarely compete statewide. Espy’s campaign has knocked on 100,000 doors during the runoff, and volunteers have made more than 650,000 phone calls, according to a source with knowledge of the operation. They’ve also sent out hundreds of thousands of pieces of mail and distributed sample ballots in every county.
But Republicans have had an advantage on the airwaves. GOP groups aired more than $3 million in ads for the runoff, with most of the spending coming from the NRSC and Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Democrats have run $2 million of ads between Espy’s campaign and Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC aligned with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Republican ads have attacked Espy for a $750,000 lobbying contract he had earlier this decade with an Ivory Coast dictator, and for the indictments that forced his resignation from the Clinton administration, though he was exonerated from all charges. The party has also run ads comparing him to national Democrats and bashing him as a “liberal” opponent of Trump’s agenda.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, the only Democrat representing Mississippi in Congress, said the energy was unmistakable when he attended campaign events or made church visits over the weekend, mostly because of the backlash to Hyde-Smith’s “public hanging” comments. Thompson acknowledged the math is difficult for Espy. The Democrat will need black voters to represent an outsize percentage of the runoff vote, while peeling off more white voters than he did during the general election.
“The enthusiasm I see is very palpable,” Espy told reporters Monday afternoon. He mostly brushed off Trump’s rallies, planning his own events with voters at the same time.
“He’s going to say whatever he has to say,” Espy said.
In Washington, Republicans remain confident that Hyde-Smith will survive the runoff and keep their Senate majority at a 53-47 margin.
“It’s been kind of an ugly race,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), “but I’m optimistic that we’ll win.”
Rebecca Morin and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.