Mississippi Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith apologized Tuesday evening for a recent remark that evoked the South’s ugly past of racial terror against African-Americans and has turned what should be an easy win for the GOP in a runoff election for the U.S. Senate into an unexpectedly competitive race.
“For anyone that was offended by my comments, I certainly apologize. There was no ill will, no intent whatsoever in my statement,” Hyde-Smith said in a debate with Democrat Mike Espy. “In nearly 20 years of service … I have worked with all Mississippians. It didn’t matter their skin color.”
But Hyde-Smith, a former state senator appointed to her seat in March, also said that her words had been “twisted” and “turned into a weapon to be used against me.”
Espy, a former congressman and secretary of agriculture under President Bill Clinton, told Hyde-Smith that “no one twisted your comments because your comments were live.”
“I don’t know what’s in your heart, but we all know what came out of your mouth,” said Espy, who is black. “It’s given our state another black eye that we don’t need.”
“We got a senator here talking about public hangings,” Espy said. “Ladies and gentleman, I am not going back to yesteryear. We are going to move forward … not talking about horrors of the past.”
On Nov. 11, video of Hyde-Smith surfaced where she told an audience at a campaign event that she appreciated the host who had invited her so much that “if he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”
Mississippi has a gruesome history of “racial terror lynchings,” as they have been described by the Equal Justice Initiative. In 1877, the last of the federal troops sent to the South following the Civil War were pulled out of the region. The withdrawal was followed by lynchings and Jim Crow laws that systematically took political power away from blacks in the South.
From 1877 to 1950, there were 654 lynchings of African-Americans in Mississippi, according to a 2015 study conducted by EJI. That’s 15 percent of all the lynchings that took place in 12 Southern states during that time.
The Equal Justice Initiative, in its report, characterized lynchings as “acts of terrorism” that were “a tactic for maintaining racial control by victimizing the entire African American community, not merely punishment of an alleged perpetrator for a crime.”
Yet Hyde-Smith, until Tuesday night, refused to apologize for any harm her comment might have caused. The lack of an apology and Hyde-Smith’s bungled response to questions have exasperated Republicans in the state who want to keep the Senate seat in the GOP’s hands.
The same day that her statement came to light, Hyde-Smith released a statement saying that her reference to a “public hanging” was “an exaggerated expression of regard” for the host who had invited her to the event where she made the comment. She refused to apologize and said that “any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous.”
The next day, Hyde-Smith made a disastrous appearance at a press conference with Gov. Phil Bryant, who appointed her to replace Sen. Thad Cochran, a Republican, earlier this year. Cochran’s physical and mental health were in serious decline.
At her press conference, Hyde-Smith was asked five times to explain her comment, and five times she repeated herself almost word for word, saying that her campaign had put out a statement, and that she would not answer any further questions.
“Senator are you familiar with Mississippi’s history of lynchings?” one reporter asked her.
“I put out a statement yesterday, and that’s all I’m going to say about it,” Hyde-Smith said.
“Is that phrasing in your everyday lingo?” another reporter asked.
“I put out a statement yesterday, and I stand by the statement,” Hyde-Smith said.
During the debate Tuesday night, Espy criticized Hyde-Smith’s refusal to answer questions at the Nov. 12 press conference and implied that she was a puppet of her campaign advisers, a critique echoed in private conversations even with Mississippi Republicans. “I thought that was awful what she did at that press conference,” Espy said. “Nobody tells me where to stand, what to say, how to speak, how to vote.”
After the debate, Espy told reporters that Hyde-Smith had 30 pages of notes with her at the podium, calling her “scripted.”
“She was reading everything. She even read her apology. I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said. “She didn’t apologize until tonight … but then she had to read it. That meant that was just not heartfelt.”
Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, the state’s senior senator, said after the debate he thought Hyde-Smith had “addressed the issue adequately tonight.”
“The people of Mississippi have a strong sense of fair play. They know what that statement wasn’t and they know that too much is being made of it,” Wicker said. “I agree with her that the statement was twisted out of proportion. She used a poor choice of words … and I think she acknowledged that.”
On Tuesday morning, retail giant Walmart announced that after donating $2,000 to Hyde-Smith’s campaign it was “withdrawing our support and requesting a refund of all campaign donations.”
President Trump, however, minimized Hyde-Smith’s comment as a harmless joke.
“She made a statement, which I know that she feels really bad about it, and was just sort of said in jest,” Trump said. “She’s a tremendous woman, and it’s a shame that she has to go through this.”
Trump will hold two rallies for Hyde-Smith on Monday, the day before the runoff.
Hyde Smith finished narrowly ahead of Espy in the Nov. 6 general election, but failed to garner 50 percent in a three-way race, sending the election to a three-week runoff. Hyde-Smith received 368,536 votes on Nov. 6, compared with 360,112 for Espy. Republican Chris McDaniel finished third with 146,013 votes.
Also on Tuesday, photos from Hyde-Smith’s Facebook page were discovered that showed her in 2014 visiting the former home of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Hyde-Smith posted photos of herself posing with a Confederate cap on her head, and wrote that her visit to the museum was “Mississippi history at its best!”
Henry Barbour, a Republican operative in Mississippi who has run a super-PAC created to help Hyde-Smith defeat McDaniel in the primary, said that Hyde-Smith’s series of gaffes had “poured cold water on our turnout and gasoline on [the Democrats’].”
But Espy still faces a huge challenge due to the deep conservatism of Mississippi, where white voters support the Republican Party most of the time in all elections, but overwhelmingly so in federal elections when national issues like abortion, gun rights, immigration and judges are on the table.
Hyde-Smith’s most aggressive attacks on Espy during the debate revolved around his lobbying work for the Cocoa and Coffee Board of the Ivory Coast in 2011. Hyde-Smith sought to tie him to Laurent Gbagbo, Ivory Coast’s former president, who is on trial in the International Criminal Court.
Hyde-Smith repeatedly hammered Espy for his working with the Gbagbo government, for which he received $750,000 in fees. Her campaign launched a website, rejectbloodmoney.com, to further its criticism of Espy on this issue.
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