By Steve Holland
BILOXI, Miss. (Reuters) – President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence launched a rescue mission in Mississippi for a Republican candidate on the eve of a run-off election for the U.S. Senate, with Democrats hoping to win a seat in the state for the first time since 1982.
Trump appeared at two large, boisterous rallies in Biloxi and Tupelo, Mississippi, for Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, who is in a close race against black Democrat Mike Espy in the deep South state.
The result of Tuesday’s run-off will determine whether Republicans widen their control of the U.S. Senate to 53 to 47 seats when the new Congress takes office early next year. Hyde-Smith remains a narrow favorite to win.
While Republicans did well in Senate races, Democrats took control of the U.S. House of Representatives from Republicans in midterm congressional elections three weeks ago.
In a question-and-answer session with reporters, Trump defended Hyde-Smith from criticism after a video surfaced showing her praising a supporter at a Nov. 2 public event by saying: “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”
The comments triggered a political firestorm in a state that has a history of racism and lynchings and was a flashpoint in America’s civil rights struggle.
Trump, asked about Hyde-Smith as she sat nearby at a question-and-answer session with reporters, said her comments struck him initially as “something that was sad” and a little flippant but that she had apologized for them when they spoke about it on the phone.
“I’ve gotten to know her over the last period of time as a senator, as a very, very talented United States senator and I know where her heart is, and her heart is good. That’s not what she was meaning when she said that,” he said.
Pence joined Trump for the Biloxi rally, declaring Espy too liberal for the state of Mississippi.
The rally venue was adorned with Christmas trees and wreaths and Trump emerged from backstage out of a fake fireplace, waving away some fake snow that was blown out from the ceiling.
“There goes the suit, there goes the hair,” he said.
(Reporting By Steve Holland; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)