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Amy Walter and Tamara Keith on Mississippi Senate race

As the year's final election approaches, Lisa Desjardins reports on the controversy surrounding Mississippi's Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith as she takes on Democrat Mike Espy. Then, Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report and Tamara Keith of NPR join Judy Woodruff to analyze the election's outlook and dwindling opposition to Rep. Nancy Pelosi's becoming House speaker.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    There remains one last election in this 2018 midterm cycle, a runoff for one of the U.S. Senate seats in Mississippi.

    Race has become a major issue in this contest.

    And, as Lisa Desjardins reports, the runoff has also drawn a great deal of attention from President Trump, who is holding two rallies in the state tonight. A Republican victory there would give the party a 53rd vote in the Senate come January.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    For President Trump today, one last midterm election push in Mississippi to help Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, who is in a runoff tomorrow.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I'm here to ask the people of Mississippi to send Cindy Hyde-Smith back to the United States, so we can make America great again.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This contest in Republican deep red Mississippi has made headlines for being competitive and raising issues related to the state's painful history with race.

    First, a video showed Hyde-Smith praising a supporter by saying — quote — "If he invited me to a public hanging, I would be on the front row."

    Last week, she apologized.

  • Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss.:

    For anyone that was offended from my — by my comments, I certainly apologize. There was no ill will, no intent whatsoever.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But her Democratic opponent, Mike Espy, who is black, said the remark had consequences.

  • Mike Espy:

    It's caused our state harm. It's given our state another black eye that we don't need.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Next came Facebook photos Hyde-Smith apparently posted in 2014 showing her wearing a Confederate cap. The post read, in part, "Mississippi history at its best."

    And last week, The Jackson Free Press reported that the senator graduated from a so-called segregation academy set up by white parents to avoid integrated schools.

    The Hyde-Smith campaign says Democrats twisted her words. She argues Espy is too liberal Democrat for the state. And to add to it all, she has attacked him for lobbying on behalf of a deposed African leader now charged with war crimes. Espy has said he ended the contract early.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Desjardins.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For more on the special election in Mississippi and a few other political stories, it's time for Politics Monday with Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report and Tamara Keith of NPR.

    Welcome to you both after this Thanksgiving weekend.

    So, let's talk about Mississippi.

    Tam, so much controversy around Cindy Hyde-Smith. She says a lot of it's unnecessary, but where does that race stand right now?

  • Tamara Keith:

    It's going to a vote tomorrow.

    It — one of the major X-factors here is, this is a runoff. This is the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. It's not clear who is going to be all that excited about voting. It's one reason why President Trump is holding two rallies there today to try to remind people, hey, guess what, there's an election.

    And, you know, just by the numbers — and Amy can get into this more than I can, but, just by the numbers, in the first vote in November, there were two Republicans on the ballot, and so Cindy Hyde-Smith didn't get 50 percent, but she got a big share.

    And if you were to add those — all the people who voted for Republicans up, it's a much bigger share than voted for Espy in that first round.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And yet, Amy, there has been a lot, as we said, controversy over comments she's made, information that's come out about her.

  • Amy Walter:

    Right.

    And this race wasn't supposed to get this much attention, especially on election night, when we learned that Republicans were going to retain control of the Senate. If this were a seat where the Senate control were at stake, I think we would have seen even more national attention go very quickly here.

    But what really brought attention to this contest were the remarks of Cindy Hyde-Smith there. I think Mississippi is one of these states — Tam is exactly right — it's not exactly — you don't have to be a political analyst to know that it's a really tough state for Democrats. It's a been long time since a Democrat has won statewide there.

    But the challenge for Democrats, much like the challenge they had in Alabama, is putting together a coalition, a very — it has to be a perfectly, precise coalition, to barely get over the finish line of tremendous turnout among African-American voters — remember, Mississippi has the largest percentage of eligible voters who are African-American.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thirty-eight percent, something like that.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes.

    And as well as getting some white voters. But, really, fundamentally, what a lot of Democrats were hoping was that those voters who traditionally turn out to support Republicans stay home. Maybe they supported the other Republican in the first round of voting. Maybe they just weren't paying as much attention because the Senate wasn't at stake.

    Donald Trump coming in to remind them that his name is not on the ballot, but he is on the ballot.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Tam, his being there, two rallies tonight, one in Tupelo, one in Biloxi, this can help Cindy Hyde-Smith?

  • Tamara Keith:

    Yes, there are two ways of thinking about it.

    One way is, President Trump is having to go in and hold rallies to help pull her over the finish line. The other way of thinking about it is, there's nothing you could do to prevent President Trump from holding a rally if there's an opportunity for him to hold a rally.

  • Amy Walter:

    That's right. He loves this. This is exactly what he loves to do.

  • Tamara Keith:

    This is what he loves, loves, loves to do.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes.

    And the race is — what we heard from operatives going into the Thanksgiving holiday was, yes, the race had tightened up a little bit after those remarks, and there were some high-profile companies that said we want our money back who had given money to Cindy Hyde-Smith, like Wal-Mart, Major League Baseball, but it's still not as close as, say, the Alabama Senate race was going into that election.

  • Tamara Keith:

    And what I had found in looking at President Trump's endorsements in the earlier midterm races is that his endorsements really did help in states, his rallies did help in states where they're red states, where Republicans have a lot of strength and where his base is.

    Mississippi is a base state for President Trump.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes, his approval rating is somewhere around 56 percent there, so one of the best states for Donald Trump.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, as we say, a couple days after Thanksgiving. It's not unwise on their part to try to get their vote out.

    So let's bring it back to Washington and to the House of Representatives. It was only seven days ago, Amy, that we were talking about the race for speaker, Nancy Pelosi clearly running, but getting a challenge, getting opposition from newly elected and some existing Democrats in the House.

    But all that now seems to be melting away.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What happened?

  • Amy Walter:

    Well, the biggest thing that happened is something that didn't happen, which is we don't actually have a challenger to Nancy Pelosi.

    What we saw — the last time we were here, there was a letter signed by about 16 Democrats, some returning, some new members, that said, we're not going to support Nancy Pelosi on the floor, we're not going to support her in caucus.

    And what I think they had hoped was that by sending this letter out that somebody would emerge in the Democratic Caucus to, ooh, ooh, I will run, I will run, I will take this mantle and this challenge.

    Instead, what happened was that they ran for it. It's like watching military, right, where the generals run forward, and they look behind, and there's nobody behind them.

    And that has left Nancy Pelosi in a very strong position right now. And we have also seen a number of those members who signed that letter now have actually come out and said, OK, I think maybe I'm going to vote for Pelosi.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Seth Moulton of Massachusetts said today he was ready to sit down and talk to her. He's been one of her leading critics.

  • Tamara Keith:

    Yes, that one is particularly mind-boggling.

    And you had Marcia Fudge, who was the only name that ever came up as someone who could potentially challenge Pelosi. She never said for sure that she was going to do it. She didn't sign the letter. And then she met with Nancy Pelosi. And now Nancy Pelosi is restarting a committee on elections and voting.

    And who's going to be the chair of that committee? Marcia Fudge.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, some restructuring.

  • Tamara Keith:

    Well, and Nancy Pelosi has proven over time that is one of the levers that she has worked very well over the years. She knows how to how to give out gifts to get what she needs and how to get people to do things that they don't necessarily want to do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It really — it's a testament. You have been saying this, Amy. It's a testament to her skill as an indoor, what we call indoor politician, somebody who knows how to work the levers of power and make people feel…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes, especially since this was an election where we said this is a change election, right, so many new members, so many folks who were running against the establishment. This was going to be a significant challenge to somebody who's been part of the establishment for so long.

    And yet what you saw with — I think two things. First of all, she worked it very hard. She didn't take it for granted that she was going to have the votes. And the second was, I think the fact that every day since the election Democrats have picked up more seats — they're almost at 40 seats now gained in this midterm — the attacks on Nancy Pelosi in the election, the attacks on her in these individual districts didn't seem to really hurt Democrats.

    And I think it made it much harder for the Democrats who are opposed to her to say, you better get on board because she's an anchor and she's going to take us all down.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fascinating to watch it.

  • Amy Walter:

    It is.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Amy Walter, Tamara Keith, thank you both.

  • Tamara Keith:

    You're welcome.

  • Amy Walter:

    You're welcome.

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