With just hours to go before a pivotal special election in Mississippi that will determine the strength of the GOP’s Senate majority next year, President Trump was hosting the first of two major rallies in the state Monday evening.
Large crowds gathered hours in advance at Tupelo Regional Airport, where GOP Rep. Trent Kelly led supporters in a chant of “Build the wall” as Air Force One approached for landing.
Incumbent Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, who was appointed in March to fill retired Republican Sen. Thad Cochran’s seat, is facing off in Tuesday’s special election against Mike Espy, who served in former President Bill Clinton’s administration. Espy is seeking to become Mississippi’s first black senator since Reconstruction.
Trump is set to hold another rally, in Biloxi, at 9:00 p.m. ET, underscoring the importance of the race for Senate Republicans. The GOP could expand its majority in the Senate to 53 seats if Hyde-Smith prevails.
The president carried Mississippi over Hillary Clinton by nearly 20 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election, and GOP Sen. Roger Wicker won reelection by a similar margin earlier in the month.
However, Democrats have seen some cause for optimism in recent weeks, fueled by a series of missteps by Hyde-Smith.
The incumbent Republican lawmaker was recorded during a campaign stop saying that if a supporter invited her to a “public hanging,” she would be in “the front row.” She has since said her comment was made in jest and denied any racial connotation.
Speaking to reporters outside the White House earlier Monday before flying to Mississippi, Trump said Hyde-Smith “felt very badly, and she certainly didn’t mean that, and she’s already apologized and I think very strongly.”
He said her comments were “taken a certain way, but she certainly didn’t mean it.”
“I’ve known her for a period of time now as a senator — she’s been an excellent senator,” Trump said. “I’m going there — I’m going to make, I guess, two rallies on top of everything else. And I hope you’re all coming.”
Amid fallout from those remarks, Major League Baseball asked that Hyde-Smith return the organization’s $5,000 donation. Other organizations have made similar requests.
Hyde-Smith also co-sponsored a bill in the Mississippi state Senate in 2007 that would have honored a former Confederate soldier for his efforts to “defend his homeland.”
The resolution, which was first reported over the weekend, called a Mississippi resident identified as Effie Lucille Nicholson Pharr “the last known living ‘Real Daughter’ of the Confederacy living in Mississippi” and praised her father’s work to “defend his homeland.”
Meanwhile, Hyde-Smith’s campaign sharply pushed back against a report in the Jackson Free Press over the weekend that she had attended what was described as a “segregation academy” in the 1970s to avoid studying with black students, calling it a “new low.”