Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith will win Mississippi’s Senate election, holding a GOP seat despite comments that stoked racial tensions in the state and sparked backlash from donors, NBC News projects.
The GOP senator will defeat Democratic former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy in the special election runoff. Hyde-Smith will serve the remainder of GOP Sen. Thad Cochran’s term through 2020. She was appointed to succeed the ailing lawmaker earlier this year.
Hyde-Smith’s victory secures a 53-47 majority for Senate Republicans in the next Congress, which starts in January. It gives Trump a boost, as he will push for the confirmation of more conservative judges and potential changes to the U.S. tax code and health care system.
Democrats will take control of the House in January, making it tougher for the GOP to reach its policy goals.
Hyde-Smith won a contest in which she joked at one campaign event about attending a “public hanging” amid a race against Espy, a black man. The remarks evoked Mississippi’s history of racist violence, and Espy said they gave the state a “black eye” and “rejuvenated old stereotypes.”
Hyde-Smith apologized to “anyone who was offended,” but her refusal to answer reporters’ questions about the comments and her campaign’s decision not to explain them further brought even more criticism. Numerous corporate donors to Hyde-Smith’s campaign, including Walmart and AT&T, asked for refunds.
Espy, who served as a U.S. representative from Mississippi and Agriculture secretary under President Bill Clinton, failed to overcome the state’s conservative leanings. Mississippi supported Trump by about 18 percentage points in 2016.
Underscoring the race’s tightness, the president tried to leverage his popularity during rallies in the state on Monday supporting Hyde-Smith. As he attempted to mobilize conservatives, Trump cast Hyde-Smith as a champion for his agenda.
Hyde-Smith, 59, becomes the first woman elected to the Senate from Mississippi.