Uh oh: Private GOP poll finds Republican lead in Mississippi Senate race down to five points

I remember two weeks ago, around 9 p.m. ET, after Mike Braun finished off Joe Donnelly early in Indiana, it looked like the GOP might end up with as many as 55 Senate seats. McSally and Sinema were neck and neck; the rural parts of Montana were starting to come in against Jon Tester; Rick Scott was clinging to a razor-thin lead over Bill Nelson.

In the end only one of the three came through. And now a seat in Mississippi that was never supposed to be in doubt is in doubt. If Democrat Mike Espy upsets Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith in the runoff a week from now, the GOP will have 52 seats next year — a net gain of just one.

Which means McConnell’s ability to confirm any nominee would rest in the hands of Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Mitt Romney.

[T]he trajectory of the election was thrown into doubt last week when a video was circulated showing Ms. Hyde-Smith, 59, praising a supporter by telling him that if he invited her “to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”

Facing an uproar in a state divided by race and deeply scarred by a history of lynchings carried out against African-Americans, Ms. Hyde-Smith has since retreated from the campaign trail, ducking reporters’ questions and declining to apologize…

[I]n Jackson and Washington, her apparent inability to take the self-inflicted controversy in hand has unnerved Republicans and stoked Democratic hopes for an upset. A private Republican poll last week found Ms. Hyde-Smith’s lead over Mr. Espy had narrowed to just five percentage points, three people briefed on the data said.

Sources have also told TPM that private polling has “found that the race has tightened since her remarks became public, with some finding her up by just a few points.” Well then.

The Democratic strategy is simple as can be: Mississippi is a longshot for them even under the best circumstances but to have any chance they need massive turnout from black voters. Hyde-Smith’s gaffes have been a godsend on that score, handing the Dems material — on video, no less — which they can air to get those voters fired up to go to the polls in what otherwise many might dismiss as a hopeless cause.

Espy himself is black and other black Democrats with a national profile have visited the state in the past few days to rally voters for him. Cory Booker was there yesterday, as was Kamala Harris. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Obama make a cameo this week; normally O would stay far away, not wanting to fire up Mississippi’s anti-Obama Republican majority, but having the first black president visit under the current circumstances may do his party more good than harm.

Corporate donors have also begun running away from Hyde-Smith in the aftermath of the “hanging” comment, most notably Wal-Mart. The irony of her landing in hot water for incendiary soundbites is that she was considered the safe establishment choice in the primary. It was populist Chris McDaniel who McConnell and the NRSC were worried about, fearing that if he finished ahead of Hyde-Smith two weeks ago and made the runoff, Espy and the Dems would label him a “neo-Confederate” or whatever and run this same strategy against him. McConnell got his wish — Hyde-Smith made the runoff. And now … she’s the one being accused of winking at lynchings and voter suppression. That’s where the obvious comparison to the Alabama special election last year breaks down. Yes, Mississippi’s a deeply red, deep southern state, but Republicans there actually did choose the “electable” candidate in their primary. And look what that got them.

The divide between the Hyde-Smith segment of the party and the McDaniel segment makes the racial controversy here especially dangerous for the GOP. Even a highly motivated Democratic Party probably doesn’t have the numbers in Mississippi to flip a Senate seat if if if the Republican majority is united behind its nominee. But what if it isn’t? What if populists who backed McDaniel in the primary have decided that the establishment favorite Hyde-Smith (who was a Democrat herself until a few years ago) can dig herself out of this hole next Tuesday when the polls open without their help? And what if the Times is right in speculating that Hyde-Smith’s comments might alienate more upscale whites? Huge turnout from black Democrats plus tepid turnout from the centrist *and* right wings of the GOP would mean very bad vibes for Hyde-Smith and McConnell.

Someone needs to call a huddle with Mississippi’s Republican voters and stress to them that the outcome on Tuesday is by no means a foregone conclusion. They’re going to have to show up this year. And so:

Trump will doubtless underline the liberal-conservative split in two rallies on the Monday before the election. His campaign announced Saturday that it will hold the first event at 5 p.m. on Nov. 26 at Tupelo Regional Airport, followed by a second event three hours later in at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum in Biloxi. It will be Trump’s fifth and sixth public events in the state since he began running for president, an unusual level of attention to what’s usually a safe Republican state. Trump endorsed Hyde-Smith in August, and they appeared together at an October rally in the Mississippi suburbs of Memphis, Tennessee.

The weirdest thing about all of this? Hyde-Smith has refused to apologize for the “hanging” comment. She’s said she didn’t mean anything untoward by it, of course, but she’s refused to say she’s sorry even in the interest of trying to put it behind her. Voters in Mississippi have noticed, if you believe the Times. Things are now dicey enough in the polling that she’s agreed to debate Espy, something an incumbent in a normally safe state wouldn’t do for fear of giving the challenger a prominent platform from which to attack. The debate is … tonight at 7 p.m. What could go wrong? Exit quotation via a Mississippi Republican, speaking to TPM: “It’s all about whether we can get through the debate without saying anything that makes it worse.”