Mike Espy lost a hard-fought U.S. Senate contest in Mississippi but had the strongest showing of any Democrat seeking that office the past 30 years in a state where Republicans have steadily increased their power.
Espy, a former congressman and former U.S. agriculture secretary, received 46.2 percent of the vote, and Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith, who had been serving in the Senate under temporary appointment since GOP Sen. Thad Cochran retired in April, received 53.8 percent, according to unofficial results from the Nov. 27 special election runoff.
The last time any Democrat had a comparable performance in a U.S. Senate race in Mississippi was in 1988, when two sitting congressmen ran for a job that was open because Democratic Sen. John C. Stennis chose not to seek re-election after 42 years. Democrat Wayne Dowdy received 46.1 percent of the vote, losing to Republican Trent Lott, who received 53.9 percent.
Hyde-Smith is the first woman elected to either chamber of Congress in Mississippi, and she won the rest of Cochran's six-year term, which ends in January 2021. Espy was seeking to become the first African-American U.S. senator from the state since Reconstruction.
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Mississippi's troubled racial history became a focal point during the runoff after a video released Nov. 11 showed Hyde-Smith praising a supporter at a Nov. 2 event in Tupelo by saying: "If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row." A separate video showed her in Starkville talking about "liberal folks" and making it "just a little more difficult" for them to vote.
Hyde-Smith's campaign said her remarks about voting were a joke. She said the "hanging" comment was "an exaggerated expression of regard," and she read an apology more than a week later during a televised debate.
Terrence Wilson, a 52-year-old mortgage banker, said after casting his ballot at a church in south Jackson that he voted for Espy. Wilson, who is black, said he was disturbed by Hyde-Smith's hanging remark. He described it as "inappropriate," given Mississippi's history of violence, including lynchings. He said the state has been trying to progress and Hyde-Smith's remark was "not a step forward."
Asked if Hyde-Smith's comment affected how people view Mississippi, Wilson said: "People are still going to think whatever they think. I thought Mississippi was a certain way until I spent time here." Wilson grew up in Flint, Michigan, but moved to Mississippi in the mid-1980s to attend Alcorn State University; he got married and stayed.
At the same precinct, 64-year-old teacher Libby Moore voted for Hyde-Smith, saying the Democratic Party is "too liberal." Moore taught 28 years in public schools and is now in her second year of teaching science at a private school. Asked about Hyde-Smith's hanging remark, Moore, who is white, said: "I thought it was a stupid thing to say.... I don't think, personally, that she meant anything racist about it."
Moore said, though, that Hyde-Smith's remark gave people reason to think, "'Oh, well, here Mississippi is again, doing something stupid or showing their racist side.'"
Hyde-Smith delivered a unity message during her victory speech.
"No matter who you voted for today, I'm going to work very hard to represent all Mississippians," Hyde-Smith said. "You handed me a victory; you put confidence in me; I will not let you down."
Espy told his own supporters that he had called Hyde-Smith to concede.
"She has my prayers as she goes to Washington to unite a very divided Mississippi," he said. "She has my prayers and my willingness to help her to do that."
Associated Press writer Jeff Amy contributed to this report. Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .
An AP news analysis