(CN) — Dogged by controversy for her remark about willingness to attend a public hanging, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, President Donald Trump at her side, told Mississippi voters on Monday: “What’s on the ballot is not just my name, Cindy Hyde-Smith, but your conservative values, that’s what’s on the ballot tomorrow.”
Hyde-Smith spoke at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum in Biloxi, hours before polls opened in the final midterm contest in the country, a runoff against former congressman and secretary of agriculture Mike Espy.
Mississippi has not elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1982 and has never elected a black senator since the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War.
Pollsters find the race too close to call, though Hyde-Smith is expected to win in an overwhelmingly Republican state that Trump won by 18 points in 2016. But allegations of racism shifted focus to Hyde-Smith’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. Thirty-eight percent of Mississippi’s registered voters are black.
She apologized in a carefully worded statement “to anyone that was offended.” But photos posted to her Facebook account in 2014 showed her smiling with Confederate items, and reports that she attended a segregated academy in high school did not help her campaign move past the uproar.
“She felt very badly; she certainly didn’t mean that,” Trump told reporters on Monday before leaving for two rallies for Hyde-Smith. “It was taken a certain way but she certainly didn’t mean it. And as I understand it, she’s already apologized, and very strongly.”
Hyde-Smith spokeswoman Melissa Scallan told Courthouse News on Monday: “The campaign is extremely confident that Mississippi voters will turn out Tuesday to elect the only conservative in this race. But we are taking our opponent very seriously and we know that voter turnout is key to securing a victory in this election.”
Espy spent election eve at a get-out-the-vote “Gospel explosion” in Jackson.
“I believe that I’m the candidate to take Mississippi forward,” Espy said. “I told everyone I need Republicans, I need Independents, I need those who haven’t voted before all to come out tomorrow to vote for me.”
His campaign has 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.
Espy, 64, spent the campaign’s final days blasting Hyde-Smith’s controversial comments as “despicable” and said she would be “a disaster for Mississippi’s economy.” He pointed to decisions from companies including AT&T, Major League Baseball and Wal-Mart, all of which denounced her recent statements and asked for their campaign donations back.
“The entire state of Mississippi can see how Cindy Hyde-Smith is costing our state jobs and putting our children’s future in jeopardy,” said Danny Blanton, communications director for Espy’s campaign. “Her toxic comments are scaring away the kind of investments our state needs to move forward.”
A onetime Democrat until switching parties in 2010, Hyde-Smith, 59, calls Espy “too liberal for Mississippi.”
In her eight months in the U.S. Senate, Hyde-Smith has emerged as a fierce loyalist of Trump. She voted in favor of his policies 100 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight, which tracks congressional votes.
“The message we want voters to have is that Cindy Hyde-Smith is going to represent Mississippi’s conservative values. She supports President Trump’s agenda, is pro-Second Amendment, pro-life and is in favor of border security,” a campaign spokeswoman said.
Republicans retained control of the Senate on Nov. 6, with Democrats losing close races in Florida, Texas and Tennessee. Democratic Senator Doug Jones won his Senate seat in neighboring Alabama last year after sexual misconduct allegations sank Roy Moore’s campaign. Republicans hold a 52-to-47 seat edge in the Senate.
Both Hyde-Smith and Espy received about 41 percent of the vote in the special election this month.