JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Voting was swift and easy in many precincts Tuesday as Mississippi residents were deciding the last U.S. Senate race of the midterms, choosing between a white Republican Senate appointee backed by President Donald Trump and a black Democrat who was agriculture secretary when Bill Clinton was in the White House.
Official senate portrait of Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) from Mississippi, Photo Date: 4/17/2018 / Mike Espy (D) is a Former United States Secretary of Agriculture, Photo Date: 2/23/2012 / Photo: U.S. Senate / U.S. Department of Agriculture / Bob Nichols
History will be made either way: Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, 59, would be the first woman ever elected to Congress from Mississippi, and Democrat Mike Espy, 64, would be the state's first African-American U.S. senator since Reconstruction.
A spokeswoman for the secretary of state's office, Leah Rupp Smith, said observers from the office were seeing "steady but slow" turnout around the state, with few lines.
Espy cast his ballot at a Baptist church in the Jackson suburb of Ridgeland, while Hyde-Smith voted at a volunteer fire department in Brookhaven, about 55 miles (89 kilometers) south of Jackson.
Mississippi's past of racist violence became a dominant theme after a video showed Hyde-Smith praising a supporter in early November by saying, "If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row." She said it was "an exaggerated expression of regard." More than a week after the video's release, she said she apologized to "anyone that was offended by my comments," but also said the remark was used as a "weapon" against her.
Hyde-Smith was seen in another video talking about making voting difficult for "liberal folks," and a photo circulated of her wearing a replica Confederate military hat during a 2014 visit to Beauvoir, a beachside museum in Biloxi, Mississippi, that was the last home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
Critics said Hyde-Smith's comments and Confederate regalia showed callous indifference in a state with a 38 percent black population, and some corporate donors, including Walmart, requested refunds on their campaign contributions to her.
Michael King, 71, who was voting Tuesday, said he believed that criticism of Hyde-Smith was purely political, as people were "grabbing something to make her look bad at the last moment."
"I think the media hyped it up as much as they could," said King, who said he voted for Hyde-Smith.
Mississippi — which still has the Confederate battle emblem on its state flag — has a history of racially motivated lynchings.
Angie Thomas is author of the young adult novel, "The Hate U Give," about the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer. Thomas, 31, cast a ballot for Espy at the same precinct where he voted. She was troubled by Hyde-Smith's remark about hanging.
"It's revealed to a lot of people that Mississippi still has a long way to go," Thomas said. "Sometimes, race is something that people don't want to discuss because it's so uncomfortable. But, if nothing else, this has made us realize that we still have so much work to do."
Hyde-Smith was in her second term as Mississippi's elected agriculture commissioner when Republican Gov. Phil Bryant chose her to temporarily succeed longtime Republican Sen. Thad Cochran, who retired in April amid health concerns. Tuesday's winner will serve the last two years of Cochran's six-year term.
Hyde-Smith has campaigned as an unwavering supporter of Trump, who campaigned with her Monday, praising her at a rally in Tupelo for voting to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"She stood up to the Democrat smear machine," Trump said.
With the Mississippi election undecided, Republicans hold 52 of the 100 Senate seats.
Mississippi last elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in 1982, but Espy was trying for the same kind of longshot win that fellow Democrat Doug Jones had nearly a year ago in neighboring Alabama, another conservative Deep South state where Republicans hold most statewide offices.
Espy campaigned as someone who would be able to bridge the partisan divide in Washington.
"This is a campaign that goes to the color line and it reached across the color line, across the chasm of racial division, across the chasm of racial acrimony," Espy said Monday night at a predominantly African-American church in Jackson.
If white voters outnumber black voters 2-to-1 on Tuesday, Espy would have to win 30 percent or more of white votes, a tough task in a state with possibly the most racially polarized electorate in the country. But if black voters rise to 40 percent of the electorate and Espy wins 9 out of 10, he needs less than a quarter of white votes to squeak out a victory.
Federal and state authorities are investigating seven nooses that were found hanging from trees outside the Mississippi Capitol on Monday, along with handwritten signs that referred to the Senate runoff and the state's history of lynching.
Hyde-Smith campaign hammered Espy for his $750,000 lobbying contract in 2011 with the Cocoa and Coffee Board of the Ivory Coast. She noted that the country's ex-president, Laurent Gbagbo, is being tried in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
Espy, who is an attorney, said: "I found out later that this guy, the president, was a really bad guy. I resigned the contract."
Espy resigned the Cabinet post in 1994 amid a special counsel investigation that accused him of improperly accepting gifts. He was tried and acquitted on 30 corruption charges, but the Mississippi Republican Party ran an ad this year that called Espy "too corrupt for the Clintons" and "too liberal for Mississippi."
Espy said he refused to accept offers of plea deals because, "I was so not guilty, I was innocent."
Associated Press writers Jeff Amy and Janet McConnaughey contributed to this report.