'Another black eye': Accusations of racism swirl in contentious Mississippi Senate runoff

  • 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 – favours 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 apologise 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 defence, 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.

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 travelled 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 per cent of the vote in the Nov. 6 race, while a third candidate, far-right Republican Chris McDaniel received 16 per cent 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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