BILOXI, Miss. (AP) — President Donald Trump stumped in Mississippi on Monday for Republican Senate appointee Cindy Hyde-Smith who has found herself in a closer-than-expected runoff contest after comments she made about attending a public hanging drew condemnation.
While Trump rallied supporters, Hyde-Smith's opponent, Democrat Mike Espy described his campaign as an effort to reach across the "chasm of racial division" during a speech at a predominantly African-American church.
Voters will decide the runoff election Tuesday.
"She votes for us and she votes for 'Make America Great Again,'" Trump said at a rally in Tupelo, where he was accompanied by Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith.
Trump called Hyde-Smith "a truly incredible leader and tireless champion" for Mississippi.
"She stood up to the Democrat smear machine," Trump said, praising her for voting to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
Hyde-Smith told the crowd in Tupelo: "I worked very, very hard for you. I have stood up for you and you know I will continue to stand up for the conservative values of Mississippi."
She has made the Trump rallies a highlight of her runoff campaign against Espy, and the president thanked her on Twitter for voting for "our Agenda in the Senate 100% of the time."
But race has become a dominant issue as Hyde-Smith faces Espy, a former congressman and U.S. agriculture secretary who would become Mississippi's first black senator since Reconstruction.
Hyde-Smith has drawn fire for a photo showing her wearing a replica hat of a Confederate soldier, and a video showing her praising a supporter by saying, "If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row."
Mississippi has a history of racially motivated lynchings and violence against people who sought voting rights for black citizens. About 38 percent of the state's residents are black. Espy is trying to boost their turnout and pick up support from white voters who are uneasy with Trump or the racially tinged stories about Hyde-Smith.
Espy spoke for nearly 30 minutes Monday to a crowd of about 200 people gathered at a predominantly African-American church in Jackson. He called on his supporters to go out to vote on Tuesday "like it's a holiday."
"We've got a job to do. We need to come out tomorrow in such numbers, such strength, marching to the polls like it's a holiday."
"This is a campaign that goes to the color line and it reached across the color line, across the chasm of racial division, across the chasm of racial acrimony," Espy said, saying blacks and whites share common concerns in the issues he's centered his campaign on, such as health insurance, student debt and jobs.
The state's fraught racial history was on display Monday when authorities discovered seven nooses and six handwritten signs on Capitol grounds Monday morning. It was not immediately known who put them there.
The signs referred to the state's history of lynchings and the Senate race, according to photos the state Department of Public Safety posted to social media. One sign said Mississippi needs a senator "who respects the lives of lynch victims."
Tuesday's runoff winner will serve the final two years of a term begun by Republican Sen. Thad Cochran, who resigned in April amid health concerns.
It's the last U.S. Senate race to be decided in 2018 and will determine whether Republicans pad their slim majority.
"If we win tomorrow, we'll be at 53-47 which is substantially more than we had," Trump said. He said of Espy, "Oh, he's far left, he's out there. How does he fit in in Mississippi?" And he told the crowd, "don't take any chances" by not voting.
Hyde-Smith's support of Trump is unmistakable. She used both her opening and closing statements of the only debate of the runoff campaign to promote Monday's presidential rallies, citing the online address to get tickets. Even on trade and tariffs, where Trump's decisions could hurt Mississippi farmers, Hyde-Smith praised the president.
After the event in Tupelo, best known as the birthplace of Elvis Presley, Hyde-Smith and Trump were to fly to the Gulf Coast for a larger rally in Biloxi.
During a last-minute campaign stop in suburban Ridgeland on Monday, Espy said he was running his own race and wouldn't be thrown off by Trump's appearance. He has emphasized that he's a moderate seeking the votes of everyone and willing to work across party lines. He noted that he had crossed the "party chasm" to endorse the re-election of Republican Gov. Haley Barbour in Mississippi in 2007.
Democrats also have used some star power. Former Vice President Joe Biden endorsed Espy, and three Democrats who could run for president in 2020 — Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick — have been to Mississippi to campaign for the former congressman who served as agriculture secretary in 1993 and 1994 under Democratic President Bill Clinton.
For Espy, turnout is key. He must close the gap in a state where Trump received 58 percent in 2016. Mississippi hasn't elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1982.
Hyde-Smith has apologized to "anyone that was offended" by the hanging comment, saying she meant no ill will. She and her campaign have refused to discuss the Confederate hat and have called the school issue a personal attack on her family meant to draw attention away from issues.
Trump defended Hyde-Smith Monday. He said the comment was "a little flip" but said she apologized and that he'd "heard that loud and clear." He said he knows "where her heart is and her heart is good."
Walmart asked Hyde-Smith to return a $2,000 campaign contribution because of the hanging remark.