Normally, Republicans don’t need to worry about their chances of winning a Senate seat in Mississippi. But this year, Democrat Mike Espy may have a real shot at victory in Tuesday’s runoff election, as a host of allegations of racism plague his opponent, Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith. And they all started with her decision to joke about attending a "public hanging."
Hyde-Smith, appointed earlier this year to take over retiring Sen. Thad Cochran’s seat, failed to capture the 50 percent of votes she needed to win outright on Election Day earlier this month, thanks to a third-party challenge from former Republican state Sen. Chris McDaniel. Hyde-Smith and Espy advanced to a Nov. 27 runoff, but without McDaniel siphoning votes, Hyde-Smith was widely expected to cruise to victory in the ruby-red state.
But about a week after Election Day, the drama started: Hyde-Smith tried to praise a supporter by saying, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row.” Critics denounced her and pointed to Mississippi’s gruesome history of lynching. In the weeks since, Hyde-Smith has been repeatedly accused of racist behavior, including attending a segregated school. And her opponents are hoping the scandals will cost Hyde-Smith the election, just as sexual misconduct allegations torpedoed Roy Moore’s chances in conservative Alabama.
“Cindy Hyde-Smith’s comments are reprehensible. They have no place in our political discourse, in Mississippi, or in our country,” Espy, who’s black, said in a statement.
“Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith’s shameful remarks prove once again how [Donald] Trump has created a social and political climate that normalizes hateful and racist rhetoric,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in a statement. “Hyde-Smith’s decision to joke about ‘hanging,’ in a state known for its violent and terroristic history toward African Americans, is sick.”
More than 600 African-Americans were lynched in Mississippi between 1877 and 1950, more than in any other state, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.
Walmart, AT&T, and at least three other companies asked Hyde-Smith to return their donations on Tuesday — the same day that 2014 photos of Hyde-Smith wearing a Confederate hat surfaced. Hyde-Smith posted the photos to Facebook, writing, “Mississippi history at its best!”
Hyde-Smith, it turns out, has a history of trying to commemorate the Confederacy. As a Mississippi state senator, she proposed a bill to rename a highway the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway, the Washington Post reported Thursday. (Davis was the president of the Confederacy.) Hyde-Smith also co-sponsored legislation that praised a Confederate soldier, which said the soldier “fought to defend his homeland and contributed to the rebuilding of the country” after fighting in what the measure called “the War Between the States,” CNN reported Monday.
On Friday, the Jackson Free Press also reported that Hyde-Smith, now 59, had attended a “segregation academy,” where white families could send their children to school without black students, years after the Supreme Court ordered public schools nationwide to integrate.
Hyde-Smith did not at first apologize for her “public hanging” comment, which she initially called an “exaggerated expression of regard” in a statement. In a debate Tuesday, however, Hyde-Smith finally apologized “for anyone that was offended by my comments.” She then added, "This comment was twisted, and it was turned into a weapon to be used against me.”
Espy shot back, "No one twisted your comments, because the comments came out of your mouth."
In a statement responding to CNN’s reporting about her co-sponsoring the legislation praising a Confederate soldier, Hyde-Smith campaign spokeswoman Melissa Scallan went after the “liberal media.”
"They have stooped to a new low, attacking her entire family and trying to destroy her personally instead of focusing on the clear differences on the issues between Cindy Hyde-Smith and her far-left opponent,” Scallan said.
Roy Moore all over again
It’s a move right out of the Roy Moore campaign playbook, which sought to portray the allegations against the Republican judge — namely, that he molested a 14-year-old in the late 1970s — as a media ploy. That didn’t work out so well for Moore, who lost his special election bid for an Alabama Senate seat to Democrat Doug Jones in a stunning upset last year.
Jones’ victory gave Democrats a potential roadmap for defeating Hyde-Smith in Mississippi. They’re focusing on turning out black voters, who helped propel Jones to victory and made up about a third of all Mississippi voters on Nov. 6, according to the Associated Press. Espy won support from about 80 percent of black voters that day.
“We are treating the African-American vote almost as if it were the swing vote,” Rich McDaniel told the AP. McDaniel, who ran Jones’ field operations, is now heading up Espy’s turnout effort.
But Hyde-Smith is not being accused of pedophilia, and Democrats’ chances in Mississippi remain slim: The race is still rated “lean Republican” by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. An October poll by NBC News and Marist, conducted when McDaniel was still in the race, found that Hyde-Smith had a 9-point lead.
A win for either side would be historic. Hyde-Smith would be the first woman ever elected to represent Mississippi in Congress, while Espy would be the state’s first black senator since Reconstruction.
Trump was heading to Mississippi Monday afternoon to help get out the vote for Hyde-Smith.
Cover image: In this Nov. 20, 2018, photo, Democrat Mike Espy, left, challenges a answer from appointed U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., during their televised Mississippi U.S. Senate debate in Jackson, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, Pool)