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Mississippi Republicans say they'll vote for Cindy Hyde-Smith, albeit reluctantly

Trump rallies in Mississippi

GULFPORT, MISS—Republicans in Mississippi may not be in love with Cindy Hyde-Smith, who was appointed to the Senate earlier this year after longtime Sen. Thad Cochran retired due to health issues. 

But many say they're voting for her anyway in Tuesday's runoff election, which is happening because neither candidate got 50 percent of the vote on November 6th. And the simplest, most common reason why they support her? "She's a Republican, I guess," said Jerry Smith, a grandfather and longtime Mississippi resident.

Like a lot of Mississippi Republicans, Smith seems willing to forgive the senator for some of the eyebrow-raising remarks she's made in recent weeks. "I think it's been overblown," Smith said over a simmering plate of Chinese food at the Edgewater Mall in Biloxi,. "But I ask myself sometimes, which are the two of the least evil — which of the two are the least evil. I'm voting for Smith. I just think she's the less of the two evils."

The race between Hyde-Smith, who is hoping to keep the seat away from Democrat Mike Espy, has garnered plenty of national attention. Hyde-Smith remarked that she would go to a "public hanging," a comment she said was made in jest and eventually apologized for. Democrats said the remark had racial overtones and harkened back to a darker chapter in Mississippi history, especially since Espy would be the state's first African-American senator since Reconstruction.  

Republicans here describe the comments in softer terms. And they also object to the negative ads inundating their television screens weeks after most of the country's midterm races were decided. 

"I'll vote for Mrs. Smith you know, because being a Republican," said Betty Lechman, a Biloxi-area resident of five decades, at the Edgewater Mall food court table where she and her friends meet every day of the week except Sundays, which are reserved for church. 

"But like I said, neither one of them, I wish I had somebody else to vote for. But it's not going to happen," Lechman added. "All the mud-slinging. I don't like mud-slinging and both of them are doing that." 

Her friend, Marion Cranmer, also a retired longtime Mississippi resident, agreed. 

"There's been too much mud-slinging," Cranmer said, frustrated. "You just wonder sometimes what you hear about her whether some of it's not true. But, it just kind of puts you on the fence. I don't like either one of them."

As of Monday, Cranmer wasn't sure if she'd be voting. But, "if you don't vote for her, it's a vote for him," she added. 

Republicans tend to think Hyde-Smith didn't mean what she said and reject the idea that the comment had racial overtones. "I don't think she should have said what she said about the hanging" — but she didn't mean to say it, and it's been misconstrued, Smith added.

Hyde-Smith is favored to win in a state that voted for Mr. Trump over her by 18 points. Mr. Trump held a festive, Christmas-themed rally for Hyde-Smith in Biloxi Monday night, and a rally earlier that day for her in Tupelo, 300 miles to the north. 

"If you let Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters  and Chuck Schumer win the Mississippi Senate seat, they will try to erase all of our gains, reverse all of our progress and impose -- you know this -- they want to impose their extreme job-killing agenda. And I just set — you just set — your all time record in Mississippi for jobs," Mr. Trump told his supporters Monday night. 

But Republicans CBS News spoke with were much more likely to be there to support the president than Hyde-Smith, although some acknowledged that her winning will help his agenda. With Democrats taking back the House in January, national Republicans have argued that it's crucial to expand the GOP's Senate majority. 

While Mississippi is a solidly Republican state, special elections are notoriously hard to predict as they tend to have low turnout. And sure enough, Tuesday's runoff election isn't on everyone's radar here. 

"There's an election tomorrow?" one student at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College said.

Students at the college had seen some of the attack ads against Hyde-Smith — but they couldn't say much about what Espy, a Secretary of Agriculture under President Clinton, stands for. 

"I've never really hard anything about Mike Espy," said 19-year-old Marjorie Lam, a biology student at the community college.

"I've never heard a negative ad, I've never heard a positive ad," she said of him. 

Dianne Swennumson and her husband have supported Republicans in the past but say they're appalled by Mr. Trump's rhetoric and behavior. Swennumson was always planning to vote for Espy, but felt more certain about her decision after Hyde-Smith's "public hanging" comment.

"So insensitive. So insensitive," she said at a McDonald's in Biloxi. "Up until that point I thought well maybe — maybe I could at least be accepting. I was going to vote for Mike Espy anyway."

"I grew up here in Jim Crow era…I experienced Jim Crow which you just wouldn't believe," she added. 

She isn't optimistic about Espy's chances, but she's voting for him. 

"I think he has a chance but I think this is Mississippi," Swennumson said. "I wish we could be like Alabama who had enough with Roy Moore, you know. I really didn't think that was going to happen but it did, and it could be."

"I'll be totally shocked if Espy wins," she added. 

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