Mississippi Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, her campaign rocked off-kilter by her comment that she would sit with a supporter at a public hanging, offered a limited apology during a debate Tuesday night as she defiantly blamed her Democratic opponent for the controversy generated by her words.
Hyde-Smith’s remark, which she said was an exaggerated gesture of friendship, has generated a fierce backlash even among some Republican backers. To them and her opponents, she conjured an image that Mississippi wants to leave behind — of lynchings of African Americans. That historic reference is even more pointed because her opponent, former congressman Mike Espy, is seeking to become the first black senator since just after the Civil War.
“You know, for anyone that was offended by my comments, I certainly apologize. There was no ill will, no intent whatsoever in my statements,” the GOP senator said. “I have worked with all Mississippians. It didn’t matter their skin color type, their age or their income. That’s my record.”
But targeting Espy, she added that “this comment was twisted, was turned into a weapon to be used against me, a political weapon used for nothing but personal and political gain by my opponent. That’s the type of politics that Mississippians are sick and tired of.”
Espy responded by tossing the charge back at Hyde-Smith and noting that some prominent supporters had distanced themselves from her.
“Well, no one twisted your comments because your comments were live — you know, they came out of your mouth,” Espy said. “I don’t know what’s in your heart, but we all know what came out of your mouth.”
He said she caused damage throughout a state that has a dark history of racism.
“It’s given our state another black eye that we don’t need,” he said. “It’s just rejuvenated old stereotypes, you know, that we don’t need anymore. And we have companies like Walmart that wrote you today and told you that your comments did not reflect the values of their company.”
The debate, held one week before the runoff between Hyde-Smith and Espy, represented her most extensive response since a videotape of her remarks emerged last week and turned racial animosity into the dominant issue in the final election of the deeply divisive midterms. While a runoff in Mississippi would not normally be competitive, her comments triggered both parties to pour resources into the state. This week, several larger corporations — including Walmart — asked her campaign to return their contributions.
Gov. Phil Bryant (R) last spring appointed Hyde-Smith to replace veteran Sen. Thad Cochran, who retired because of illness. That prompted a special election Nov. 6 and the runoff after no candidate won over 50 percent of the vote. The winner will fill the final two years of Cochran’s term and will have to run for a full term in 2020.
If Hyde-Smith wins Tuesday, Republicans would expand their majority in the Senate to 53-47. Democrats, fresh from their takeover of the House, are hoping to limit the GOP’s Senate advantage to four seats with a win in the Deep South powered by strong turnout among the state’s African American voters and others put off by Hyde-Smith’s comments.
President Trump is planning to return to the state for two rallies on Monday, just hours before voters head to the polls. Hyde-Smith mentioned Trump’s campaign appearances during her opening and closing statements, directing viewers to go to the president’s campaign website to register for their free tickets.
Throughout the debate the senator repeatedly invoked the president, saying that she would support his policies while Espy would not, and tried to return to positions that have been the backbone of numerous campaigns in conservative states, such as preserving gun rights and restricting abortion rights.
“My opponent is too liberal for Mississippi,” Hyde-Smith said. “You know I will stand up and protect our conservative values.”
She also brought up immigration throughout the hour-long debate.
“I think we should definitely build that wall,” Hyde-Smith said. “We have to secure the borders . . . I have been in the Rio Grande River with a bulletproof vest and machine guns all around.”
As Hyde-Smith sought to appeal both to Trump voters and traditional Republicans concerned by her remarks, Espy hit on themes familiar to Democratic campaigns this year.
Espy brought up health care several times, pointing out that Hyde-Smith has voted against preserving parts of the Affordable Care Act that would protect preexisting conditions.
Both candidates seemed unpolished and struggled at times to get their points across. Espy several times couldn’t complete his thoughts because he ran out of time.
He also struggled to respond to criticism of his acceptance of $750,000 from a lobbying contract with former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo. He said that he rescinded the contract when he discovered that the despot was “a bad guy.”
Hyde-Smith often looked down at her notes, and claimed that Espy was in Congress “nearly a century ago” when she apparently meant 25 years ago. She also referred to a bill that she co-sponsored with Thom Tillis, the senator from North Carolina, but she called him Tom Thompson and said he was from South Carolina.
The debate on Tuesday night is the first and only one between the two candidates, and both campaigns are focused on trying to turn out their supporters for an election awkwardly placed after the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
Although polls have tightened in recent days, Espy remains the underdog, his odds dependent on a widespread repudiation of Hyde-Smith by a substantial chunk of the state’s dominant Republican voters. To that end, in his closing statement, Espy again returned to Hyde-Smith’s comment about public hangings.
“We have a senator here talking about public hangings and voter suppression,” Espy said in his closing statement. “I am not going back to yesteryear. . .We are moving forward.”