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President Donald Trump's five-state campaign blitz came to the deep south Tuesday — leaving behind the tumult in Washington over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation process — to help salvage the Republican majority in Congress in the favorable Magnolia state.
The appointment of Kavanaugh was supposed to galvanize conservatives at the polls, but amid allegations of sexual misconduct, and a White House-approved "limited" FBI investigation into those accusations, the once-political catalyst for the GOP base is now seen as a potential political cost.
But on the trail in Mississippi, Trump's embattled Supreme Court nominee found a sympathetic audience.
"We want Kavanaugh! We want Kavanaugh!" the crowd chanted in response to the president Tuesday night, as Trump accused Democrats of seeking to destroy his nominee "since the very first second he was announced because they know Judge Kavanaugh will follow the Constitution as written."
The president's principal mission in Mississippi was to shore up support for his anointed pick, GOP Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith. A stop in a ruby red state, which Trump won by nearly 20 points in 2016 and which has voted for a Republican for president since 1972 — except in 1976, for Jimmy Carter — might seem to defy conventional political wisdom five weeks out from the midterm elections.
But this year, the Trump-endorsed candidate is contending with a tough challenge from her left by Mississippi's first African American U.S. Representative since the Reconstruction era, Mike Espy, and from her right by insurgent Chris McDaniel.
And looming over this pivotal contest is the debate over Kavanaugh.
"I continue to believe Judge Kavanaugh will be confirmed despite an agreement to again look at accusations that have not been proved with verifiable evidence," Hyde-Smith, who was appointed to the seat after Republican Sen. Thad Cochran retired in April due to health concerns and triggered a special election, said in a statement to ABC News on Monday. "A seven-day delay, after an already unprecedented vetting and hearing process, won’t change those facts. It's time for Senators to stand up and confirm Judge Kavanaugh."
During brief remarks onstage with the president Tuesday night, Hyde-Smith made clear that she stands with the president and his nominee, expressing her support for his confirmation and imploring the audience to pray for Kavanaugh's family.
But even so, there were signs at the rally that not all Republican voters in Mississippi are heeding the president's calls to vote for Hyde-Smith. Some in the audience wore shirts for McDaniel, and there were even a few audible boos in the audience when Hyde-Smith was called out.
McDaniel, for his part, has relentlessly cornered his Republican opponent on Kavanaugh, insisting Hyde-Smith fight "tooth and nail" to confirm the judge, and challenging her loyalty to Trump in the hopes of out-Trumping her.
"Cindy Hyde-Smith's silence in the face of adversity to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court is unacceptable," McDaniel said in a statement last week. "Judge Kavanaugh should be confirmed in the U.S. Senate immediately, and every single Republican senator, including Cindy Hyde-Smith, should be fighting tooth and nail to make sure he is confirmed."
Despite failing to score the president's endorsement, McDaniel has taken some unconventional steps to earn the support of his base, including inviting supporters to show up to the previously scheduled Trump rally for Hyde-Smith. It was canceled due to Hurricane Florence.
"Show the President that Trump Country is McDaniel Country," an email to supporters read.
In an apparent show of loyalty to Trump, McDaniel told American Family Radio in September of Ford's claims, "These allegations, 99 percent of the time, are just absolutely fabricated."
A pivotal open seat in 2018
The three-way race pits Hyde-Smith against Espy, and McDaniel, who harbors the endorsement of political strategist and former Trump aide Steve Bannon.
After nearly defeating Cochran in 2014 in a primary challenge, McDaniel is running again, boasting name recognition across the state and riding anti-establishment fervor — to contest Hyde-Smith's establishment hold on the seat. The former conservative talk show host aims to incite support among Trump's conservative base to propel his outsider candidacy.
He initially announced a bid against incumbent Sen. Roger Wicker, whom Trump endorsed this cycle, but instead jumped into the special election in late March.
McDaniel, along with Espy, a former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under President Bill Clinton who was recently endorsed by former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, is benefiting from the state's "jungle primary" format where candidates battle in an open election regardless of party affiliation.
But marring McDaniel's chances is a campaign fraught with controversy of his own making. Most recently, when asked how he would speak to the state’s African-American population on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, the state senator responded, "After 100 years of begging for federal government scraps, where are you today?" The audience booed.
The winner in November, who will serve out the remainder of Cochran's term, must secure the majority of the votes. Complicating matters for Hyde-Smith, the presumptive frontrunner, is the fact that no party labels will be the ballot.
Another possible wrinkle for the former state senator is that she was also a former Democrat, switching to the Republican party in 2010. Her past affiliation has been a preferred talking point for McDaniel, who recently said: "I understand that as a lifelong Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton, it might be difficult for Cindy Hyde-Smith to advocate vocally for one of President Trump's Supreme Court nominees, but Mississippians are counting on her to stand and fight for them in the U.S. Senate."
But Hyde-Smith has ties to the White House, and the Trump family. The president's daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, even endorsed the Republican candidate in a video message.
One other palpable concern for both Republican candidates is the outcome of neighboring Alabama's most recent special election last year. A Republican-held Senate seat flipped from red to blue, after now-Sen. Doug Jones upset the Bannon-and-Trump-backed GOP candidate, Roy Moore.
Now, Bannon's support for McDaniel could be seen as a drawback.
"By announcing early, we are asking Mississippi Republicans to unite around my candidacy and avoid another contentious contest among GOP members that would only improve the Democrats' chances of winning the open seat," McDaniel said in a March statement announcing his candidacy, alluding to the possibility of a "blue wave" reaching into Mississippi.
FiveThirtyEight gives Democrats a 2 in 7 chance of winning the Senate in November, as of Monday, and with the fate of Congress on the ticket this cycle Democrats view the race as an opportunity to pick up a seat in a deep red state.
If none of the candidates are able to win 50 percent of the vote, Mississippians will return to the polls again three weeks later, deciding between the top two. And if the Senate ends up tied on Election Day, this special election could be the deciding factor over which party ultimately controls the upper chamber.