(CN) – Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith became Mississippi’s first woman elected to Congress Tuesday night, defeating former congressman and secretary of agriculture Mike Espy, in an election marred by race following a remark she made about her willingness to attend a public hanging.
With 78 percent of precincts reporting at 9:30 pm CST, Hyde-Smith had garnered 55 percent of the vote to Espy’s 44 percent, a 68,619 vote advantage.
Hyde-Smith’s victory in Mississippi three weeks after Republicans retained control of the Senate cements their 53-47 majority and dashed Democrats’ long shot hopes of flipping a seat in the last race of the 2018 midterms.
Her win was also a victory for President Donald Trump, who headlined two rallies in the state hoping to drive out enough turnout to prevent an historic upset in the GOP stronghold he carried by 18 points in 2016.
“Cindy’s far left opponent, he’s far left, oh he’s out there, how does he fit in with Mississippi?” Trump asked supporters in Biloxi Monday night at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum hours before polls opened. “How does he fit in?”
About an hour after polls closed, Hyde-Smith led by 9 percentage points, about 9,208 votes, with 13 percent of precincts reporting. She pulled ahead of her Democratic challenger in four of the five most populated counties and her double-digit lead became insurmountable as more results rolled in.
Hyde-Smith – who was appointed to the seat on an interim basis – was expected to easily cruise to victory after a nonpartisan special election earlier this month winnowed down the field to two. But allegations of racism shifted focus to the former state senator’s background and Mississippi’s own history of racial discrimination and lynching.
She ignited a firestorm of controversy and lost the backing of several major companies after a Nov. 2 video surfaced showing her joking about her willingness to attend a public hanging.
“If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row,” Hyde-Smith told a crowd about a political supporter.
Espy’s campaign seized the opportunity to turn the controversial remarks into momentum and had been lifted in recent weeks by prominent Democratic figures and national fundraising groups pumping last-minute enthusiasm and cash into the tighter-than-expected race.
But even help from President Barack Obama wasn’t enough to mobilize enough Democratic voters to push Espy though. He had hoped to become the first African-American U.S. senator to represent the state since the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War.
But the uproar over Hyde-Smith’s racially charged comments continued to overshadow the race.
Mississippi officials are still investigating a set of nooses found hanging from trees outside of the state capitol building on Monday.
Handwritten hate signs mentioning Tuesday’s runoff accompanied the nooses. One sign read: “We’re hanging nooses to remind people that times haven’t changed.”
Hyde-Smith called Espy “too liberal for Mississippi” and slammed his $750,000 lobbying contract from 2011 with Cocoa and Coffee Board of the Ivory Coast. She reminded voters in ads and on her website that the West African country’s ex-president, Laurent Gbagbo, is being charged with crimes against humanity.
Espy, an attorney, said he terminated the contract. He spent his campaign’s final days blasting Hyde-Smith’s comments as “despicable” and said she would be “a disaster for Mississippi’s economy.”
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith, a former state agriculture commissioner, to fill outgoing U.S. Senator Thad Cochran’s seat. Cochran retired in March due to health issues.
A one-time Democrat, Hyde-Smith has emerged as a fierce loyalist for Trump in her eight months in the Senate, voting in favor of his policies 100 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight, which tracks congressional votes.
She will serve out the remainder of Cochran’s term through 2021.