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President Donald Trump held two campaign rallies and one roundtable event in Mississippi on Monday, part of an 11th hour swing through the state aimed at boosting Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, who faces former Rep. Mike Espy, D-Miss., in a Senate race runoff on Tuesday.
The race has drawn national attention ever since Hyde-Smith made a joke about attending a “public hanging” that critics said was racially insensitive given Mississippi’s history of lynching black people. Hyde-Smith insists she meant no “ill will” by the phrase and has repeatedly dodged media questions about it.
Trump defended Hyde-Smith several times during his visit on Monday, telling reporters, “her heart is good,” and noting that she has issued a public apology. Hyde-Smith has said she made the remarks in jest and that she was sorry if people were offended by them.
The backlash extended to corporate America, as several major companies and organizations, such as Google and Walmart, asked the Hyde-Smith campaign to refund their donations. There was no indication the donations would be given back, however.
The controversy didn’t end there. Hyde-Smith also talked about how suppressing voter turnout would be a good idea. Then, earlier this month, a 2014 Facebook post featuring an image of Hyde-Smith wearing a Confederate hat at the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library – with a caption saying “Mississippi history at its best!” – resurfaced. Davis was president of the rebellious slave states that illegitimately seceded from the Union and triggered the Civil War.
Despite the controversies, however, polls indicate that Mississippi will elect Hyde-Smith, who was appointed to replace GOP Sen. Thad Cochran, who resigned earlier this year over concerns about his health. Trump carried the state by 18 points in 2016. Regardless of the result, the GOP will maintain its majority in the Senate. If Hyde-Smith wins, as expected, the Republicans will hold a 53-47 edge in the chamber.
Even as Trump defended Hyde-Smith, he also used the rallies to attack Espy, who is black.
During his first rally in Tupelo, Trump said of Espy, “How does he fit in with Mississippi? I mean, how does he fit in?” Espy is a former three-term congressman and secretary of Agriculture who was born and raised in Mississippi.
Speaking at rallies in Tupelo and later in Biloxi, Trump spent the majority of his time on stage Monday the way he usually does, boasting of his administration’s accomplishments and exaggerating what he claims are threats facing the country, from undocumented immigrants, foreign trading partners and congressional Democrats.
Yet now that the midterm elections were over, and now that Democrats have taken control of the House, Trump’s doomsday warnings about what would happen if Democrats were put in charge seemed to lack the urgency they had in the weeks leading up to Nov. 6.
Trump also bragged about the economy under his watch. He started off by blaming previous administrations for trade policies that he said “shipped away your jobs.” and forced America into “economic surrender.” Then he pivoted to optimism, saying that now, “So many companies are coming in to Mississippi, and every place else, by the way.”
But even as Trump cited examples of the strong economy, a cloud hung over the otherwise positive picture.
Earlier in the day, General Motors announced that the company planned to cut its workforce by 15 percent and shutter five plants in North America. The cuts could end up costing more than 14,000 workers their jobs.
Trump did not mention GM during the rallies, but he told The Wall Street Journal he had said to CEO Mary Barra on Sunday that the company “better damn well open a new plant” in Ohio, one of the states slated to lose hundreds of jobs under the company’s plans. Ohio was a key state for Trump in 2016. After voting for Democrat Barack Obama in two consecutive presidential elections, the state went for Trump by eight percentage points over Hillary Clinton.
The most politically effective message Trump delivered in Mississippi was his pitch on immigration, a topic that still motivates his supporters more than practically any other. Trump hit many familiar notes, painting undocumented immigrants as violent criminals who come to America to take people’s jobs.
“We don’t want those people in Mississippi,” Trump said to cheers and chants of “Build the wall!”
Hyde-Smith also came onstage at both rallies, where she spent a few minutes pledging to protect Mississippi’s “conservative values.”
Trump also made it clear how little daylight he sees between himself and Hyde-Smith.
“She votes to make America great again and she votes for America first,” Trump said in Tupelo. “Cindy is so important, so respected, we’ve got to send her back.”