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Accusations of racism swirl in contentious Mississippi Senate runoff

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Mississippi Senate candidates Mike Espy and Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith debate on Tuesday.
Mississippi
Senate candidates Mike Espy and Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith debate on
Tuesday.

Rogelio V.
Solis/AP


  • Divisive, racialized comments have tightened the US Senate
    race in Mississippi, a state with a long and dark history of
    racial violence and oppression. 
  • The remarks, made by Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, became
    a flashpoint in a contentious debate on Tuesday night in the last
    major race of the midterms. 
  • The Nov. 27 runoff election is a long shot for the Democrat,
    who would be the first member of his party elected to the US
    Senate since 1982 — and Mississippi’s first black senator since
    Reconstruction. 

Divisive, racialized comments have tightened the US Senate race
in Mississippi, a state with a long and dark history of racial
violence and oppression. 

The remarks, made by Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, became a
flashpoint in a contentious debate on Tuesday night in the last
major race of the midterms, which — like many others in the
Senate — favors a Trump-endorsed candidate in a deep red
state. 

But Democrat Mike Espy, who would be the first Mississippi
Democrat elected to the US Senate since 1982 and the state’s
first black senator since Reconstruction, is hoping to energize
the state’s significant black vote and turn out disillusioned
white voters in the Nov. 27 runoff.  

‘If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front
row’

Hyde-Smith has recently come under fire for remarks she’s made
that many have interpreted as racially insensitive. 

Earlier this month, a liberal blogger released a video showing
Hyde-Smith emb racing a supporter and
saying, 
“If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be
on the front row.”

Hyde-Smith refused to apologize in her response to the widespread
criticism, saying “any attempt to turn this into a negative
connotation is ridiculous.”

More black people were
lynched
 in Mississippi than in any other state in the
nation between the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of the
Civil Rights Movement. 

Hyde-Smith
also sparked controversy this month
when another video
emerged in which she told supporters that GOP efforts to
“make it just a little more difficult” for liberal college
students to vote are “a great idea.” 

“There’s a lot of liberal folks in those other schools who that
maybe we don’t want to vote. Maybe we want to make it just a
little more difficult,” Hyde-Smith
says in
a video
 reportedly taken on Nov. 3. Her
campaign later said the footage was “selectively edited” and the
comment was a “joke.” 

Mississippi is home to several historically black colleges and
universities — and Republicans across the country have pushed
measures that make it more difficult for college students to
vote. The NAACP
filed a lawsuit last month
charging that a majority white
county in Texas intentionally limited early voting on campus at
Prairie View A&M University, a historically
black college, to disenfranchise young black voters, who
overwhelmingly support Democrats. 

The voter suppression “joke” struck a particular nerve during
midterm elections in which, on the one hand, there have been
accusations of systematic disenfranchisement, and on the other,
unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud. Both have
played a central role in escalating partisan divisions
undermining public trust in the country’s electoral
process. 

And on Tuesday,
a 2014 Facebook post
surfaced showing Hyde-Smith posing in a
Confederate hat at the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential
Library. She commented on the post: “Mississippi history at
its best!”

Espy has condemned Hyde-Smith’s comments and called her “a
walking stereotype who embarrasses our state” and during
Tuesday’s debate said she had “given our state another
black eye.”


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While Hyde-Smith expressed regret for her comments during
the debate, apologizing to “anyone that was offended” by them,
she also went on the attack, arguing that her comment was
“twisted” and “turned into a weapon to be used against
me.” 

Espy jumped on Hyde-Smith’s defense, arguing that the remarks
spoke for themselves. 

“No one twisted your comments,” he said. “It came out of your
mouth. I don’t know what’s in your heart, but we all know what
came out of your mouth.”

On Tuesday,
Walmart
, AT&T, and the pharmaceutical giant
Pfizer asked Hyde-Smith to return their campaign donations
because of her “public hanging” comments. 


President Donald Trump with Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith.
President
Donald Trump with Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP

Harnessing national politics

Espy and his allies are hoping that the anger and
embarrassment many Mississippians feel about Hyde-Smith’s
comments will energize the state’s black voters and some white
voters into Espy’s camp.

Espy has received backup from national politicians,
including two African-American Democratic senators, Kamala
Harris and Cory Booker, who traveled to the state in recent
days to campaign for him. But he’s also been dogged by his own
issues, defending his work as a lobbyist for an African
dictator and corruption charges he was acquitted of in the
early 1990s. 

Meanwhile, Hyde-Smith has done her best to make the race
a choice between a liberal Democrat who she says is out of step
with Mississippi’s conservative electorate and Trump’s 
agenda. The former state agriculture commissioner opened and
closed the debate by encouraging viewers to attend two rallies
the president will hold for her on the eve of the
runoff. 

Both Hyde-Smith, who was appointed to replace retiring Sen. Thad
Cochran last April, and Espy, who served as agriculture secretary
in the Clinton administration, received just over 40 percent of
the vote in the Nov. 6 race, while a third candidate, far-right
Republican Chris McDaniel received 16 percent of the vote in a
deep red state that Trump won by nearly 18 points.

While most observers believe Hyde-Smith will pull out ahead next
Tuesday,
some private polling
has shown the race narrow to single
digits, with the Republican ahead by just five points. 

Perhaps in a sign of Republicans’ concern about Hyde-Smith’s
ability to defend herself, Republican Roger Wicker —
Mississippi’s senior senator — was sent out to answer reporters’
questions after the debate, even though Espy answered his own
post-debate questions. 

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