Is incumbent Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith joking her way out of a U.S. Senate seat?
Democrats hope so and Republicans are seriously, increasingly concerned.
The Mississippi lawmaker’s recent remarks about public hangings and voter suppression in a state with a tortured legacy of both against African Americans has turned the Nov. 27 runoff between her and Mike Espy, a black Democrat, into a racially-charged, potentially close affair.
Big-name donors want their contributions back. Nationally known Democrats are coming in to stump for Espy. And President Donald Trump is scheduled to campaign for Hyde-Smith, R-Mississippi, in Biloxi and Tupelo Monday.
“She made a statement, which I know that she feels very badly about it,” Trump said before departing the White House to spend Thanksgiving in Florida Tuesday. “It was just sort of said in jest. She’s a tremendous woman and it’s a shame that she has to go through this. I think she’s going to do very well.”
In a ruby-red state that hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1982, Republicans are worried. Suddenly, Mississippi looks a lot like Florida and Georgia, where African-American candidates ran for governor in high-profile, racially-charged contests featuring political star power and money flooding the state from both parties. While the black Democrats lost, they came close.
“I thought, ‘We’re just going to sleepwalk to the end of this thing,’ until Cindy Hyde-Smith’s comments,” said Marty Wiseman former director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. “It’s raised a lot of eyebrows and it was certainly a gift for Michael Espy.”
Hyde-Smith said she was joking in a video that surfaced last week that showed her saying at a campaign stop in early November that she would be “on the front row” if a supporter invited her to a “public hanging.”
Another video showed her telling a group at a campaign stop in Starkville, Mississippi, earlier this month that “There’s a lot of liberal folks in those other schools who maybe we don’t want to vote. Maybe we want to make it just a little more difficult.”
Tuesday brought another potential political headache for Hyde-Smith. Politico uncovered a 2014 Facebook post with photos of her wearing a Confederate soldier’s hat and holding a rifle during a visit to Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library in Biloxi.
“Mississippi history at its best,” she wrote in the post.
Democrats, particularly African-Americans, and several Republicans say Hyde-Smith’s remarks and explanations are hardly funny.
At a televised debate Tuesday night, Hyde-Smith apologized to “anyone that was offended by my comments...There was no ill-will, no intent whatsoever in my statements.”
She added, “I also recognize that this comment was twisted and it was turned into a weapon to be used against me — a political weapon used for nothing but personal and political gain by my opponent.”
Her comments were another attempt to soften the political damage. After the voter suppression remarks surfaced last week, her campaign said, “Obviously, Sen. Hyde-Smith was making a joke and the video was selectively edited.”
Hyde-Smith has tried to change the subject by attacking Espy for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobby for former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, who is on trial in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, including rape and persecution.
Still, her remarks earned Hyde-Smith a rare public scolding from some prominent members of her own party and the loss of some well-known donors.
Walmart said in a tweet Tuesday that it is “requesting a refund of all campaign donations” it made to Hyde-Smith. The retail giant contributed $2,000 to her campaign on Nov. 18.
“Sen. Hyde-Smith’s recent comments clearly do not reflect the values of our company,” the tweet read.
Union Pacific Corp., said in a tweet Monday, it “in no way, shape or form condones or supports divisive or perceived-to-be divisive statements” and would request a return of its $5,000 contribution to Hyde-Smith’s campaign.
Defense contractor Leidos is also looking to get back its $5,000 Hyde-Smith campaign donation, saying her remarks “are offensive and an affront to everything we stand for as a company.”
Republicans “have to be concerned when candidates say stupid things, right?” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, appearing on Sunday ABC’s “This Week,” asked.
“I think Republicans will still win but I think it (the election) will be much more watched because when candidates say things that, you know, aren’t right, aren’t smart, they get more attention,” Christie said.
Espy finished a close second to Hyde-Smith in a three-way Nov. 6 election to finish the term of retired Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Mississippi, with 40.6 percent of the vote to her 41.5 percent.
Conservative firebrand Chris McDaniel, who nearly beat Cochran in 2014, finished third with 16.5 percent.
In a state with a 37 percent black population, Espy received 91 percent of the black vote and 15 percent of the white vote, according to network exit polls.
Hyde-Smith received 60 percent of the white vote while McDaniel got 24 percent.
Democrats and several election experts say Espy would need at least 30 percent of the white vote to defeat Hyde-Smith next week.
Both Hyde-Smith and Espy would make history if elected. Hyde-Smith would become the first woman from Mississippi elected to Congress. Espy would be the first African-American senator from Mississippi since the Reconstruction era.
Hyde-Smith’s gaffes have clearly energized Espy’s campaign and Democrats.
“The dynamics of the hanging comment by his opponent sparked significant energy that was going to be very difficult to re-do,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. “It was like an after-burner.”
Thompson and civil rights leaders said Hyde-Smith talk of public hangings invoked painful memories of racially-motivated lynchings, a stain on the history of several southern states.
Mississippi led the nation in lynchings, responsible for 654 of the over 4,000 hangings that occurred between 1877 and 1950, according to “Lynching in America,” a report from the Equal Justice Initiative , a nonprofit group that provides legal representation to inmates who’ve been wrongly convicted or sentenced.
Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP and a Mississippi resident, said Hyde-Smith’s hanging comment was a calculated effort to appeal to McDaniel voters.
McDaniel invoked memories of the old South during his campaign by incorporating the Confederate flag on his yard signs and by asking on social media whether Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was a hero or villain.
“It appeals to the lowest common denominator,” Johnson said. “In Mississippi, and particularly in the South, we’ve seen this playbook before of fear-mongering and racial hatred to communicate.”
Mississippi Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who appointed Hyde-Smith to fill Cochran’s Senate term until the special election, said her public hanging remark was a simple mistake.
“I can tell you all of us in public life have said things on occasion that we could have phrased better. You make as many speeches as we do in public life, that does occur,” Bryant said last week with Hyde-Smith by his side. “She meant no offense by that statement. There was nothing in her heart of ill will.”
Gene Mitchell, 73, of Gulfport, agreed, saying “There’s nothing no meaning behind” Hyde-Smith’s public hanging comment.
“It was a figure of speech more than anything,” said Mitchell, who is white. “I don’t think she really would like to have someone hung, but that is exhibiting a bad attitude. With comments like that, that’s not doing anything except giving your opponent more ammunition.”
Michael Viana, a white 27-year-old Gulfport oil field worker, called Hyde-Smith’s public hanging quip “disgusting and sad.”
“You see blacks and whites getting along so well here and comments like that fuel violence,” Viana said. “People like that are why we have so much divide in this country.”
Tekela Campbell, an African-American woman from Gulfport, said, “I don’t think her comments were appropriate at all.”
Added Campbell, “It’s not funny, and it says a lot about her mentality.”
Espy is looking to replicate the type of African-American turnout that propelled Democratic Sen. Doug Jones over former Judge Roy Moore in neighboring red state Alabama’s special election.
It’s no coincidence that Espy’s campaign staff includes several veterans of Jones’ campaign, including media consultant Joe Trippi.
Democrats have brought in some national reinforcements to aid Espy. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, both potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, campaigned with Espy Monday and last Saturday.
The Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC Tuesday announced a $350,000 television ad buy in Mississippi on top of the $500,000 the organization has already spent in the weeks leading to the special election.
Republicans are fighting back with similar ammunition. The National Senatorial Campaign Committee made a $700,000 advertising buy last week.
The Senate Leadership Fund, a PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, will spend over $1 million on television and radio advertising and $130,000 on digital ads between last Friday and Tuesday’s runoff.
Mississippi Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who appointed Hyde-Smith to filled Cochran’s Senate term until the special election, said her public hanging remark was a simple mistake.
“She meant no offense by that statement,” Bryant said last week with Hyde-Smith by his side. “There was nothing in her heart of ill will.”