JACKSON, Miss. — Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and her Democratic challenger, Mike Espy, meet for their only debate Tuesday night in a contest where the incumbent’s verbal gaffes have dredged up strong emotions about Mississippi’s history of racial violence.
Senate races rarely gain national attention in this deeply conservative state. But this matchup — the last major race of 2018 midterms — has drawn scrutiny following Hyde-Smith’s caught-on-video remarks at separate events about “public hanging” and making it “just a little more difficult” for liberals to vote.
President Donald Trump reiterated his support for Hyde-Smith on Monday ahead of a campaign visit to Mississippi next week. Meanwhile, former Vice-President Joe Biden endorsed Espy, a former congressman and U.S. agriculture secretary who is seeking to become Mississippi’s first African-American senator since Reconstruction.
Hyde-Smith was appointed to the Senate to temporarily succeed longtime Sen. Thad Cochran, who retired in April amid health concerns. She is the first woman to represent Mississippi in Congress.
Hyde-Smith and Espy each received about 41 per cent of the vote when four candidates were on the ballot Nov. 6. If she wins the Nov. 27 runoff, Hyde-Smith would give Republicans a 53-47 majority in the U.S. Senate.
Mississippi hasn’t elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1982, and Republicans hold all but one statewide office. Still, Espy is seeking a longshot victory nearly a year after another Democrat, Doug Jones, won a Senate race against a troubled Republican candidate in neighbouring Alabama.
The contest has intensified since the publisher of a liberal-leaning news site posted a video clip Nov. 11 on social media, showing Hyde-Smith praising a cattle rancher at a Nov. 2 campaign event in Tupelo by saying: “I would fight a circular saw for him. If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”
The same Louisiana-based publisher, Lamar White Jr. of The Bayou Brief, posted another video clip Nov. 15, showing Hyde-Smith at a Nov. 3 event in Starkville talking about “liberal folks” and making it “just a little more difficult” for them to vote.
In a statement, Hyde-Smith called the hanging expression an “exaggerated expression of regard” and said it is “ridiculous” to read any negative connotation into it. She repeatedly refused to answer questions about it during a news conference in Jackson, but the issue is sure to come up at the debate. Her campaign has said she was joking about hurdles to voting.
In a state with a history of lynchings and violent suppression of black voting rights, critics denounced her remarks as ignorant at best and racist at worst.
Bishop Ronnie Crudup, senior pastor of predominantly black New Horizon Church International in Jackson, said Hyde-Smith’s hanging remark was “highly offensive.”
“That statement has historical context to it, and it shows that she doesn’t really know black people,” said Crudup, who is supporting Espy. “This is something that has everybody in an uproar because, in 2018, you want to think that we’re beyond this. And probably for most of my folks, too, what makes it worse is not to apologize about it.”
Merle Flowers, a white former colleague of Hyde-Smith’s in the Mississippi Senate, said she is being unfairly criticized for the “public hanging” comment.
“She’s a fine Christian woman and she meant no ill will in what she said. I believe the national media has blown it out of proportion,” said Flowers, a Republican who is treasurer of Mississippi Victory Fund, a super PAC that has spent nearly $790,000 to help Hyde-Smith in the special election.
Hyde-Smith served 12 years as a Democratic state lawmaker before switching to the Republican Party in late 2010 and winning statewide races as agriculture commissioner in 2011 and 2015.
“I’ve never heard Cindy Hyde-Smith say anything derogatory,” Flowers said. “Black or white or Mexican or Chinese — I’ve never heard her say a derogatory word about anyone.”
For Espy to unseat Hyde-Smith, he needs strong turnout among the African-Americans, who make up 38 per cent of Mississippi’s population. He also needs a significant share of the white vote.
Crudup helped turn out African-American voters for Cochran in 2014 when the senator was in a Republican primary runoff against McDaniel, a state senator who had tea party support.
Speaking of Hyde-Smith’s “public hanging” remark, Crudup said: “You never would have heard Thad Cochran say such. Thad was a statesman and a gentleman. Thad was somebody who was comfortable with all people. … And he was somebody who was appreciated and respected in the African-American community.”
Cochran, who lives in Oxford, has retreated from public life and has not been active in the Hyde-Smith campaign.
For AP’s complete coverage of the U.S. midterm elections: http://apne.ws/APPolitics . Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .
Emily Wagster Pettus, The Associated Press