By Grace Segers CBS News November 20, 2018, 5:15 PM Mississippi Senate debate comes amid campaign controversy
Republican incumbent Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democrat Mike Espy are participating in the only debate before the special election on Nov. 27 on Tuesday evening in the contentious race to be elected the next U.S. senator from Mississippi. Hyde-Smith, who was appointed by Gov. Phil Bryant to fill the remainder of Sen. Thad Cochran's term after he retired this year, has been embroiled in controversy after refusing to back down from racially-tinged gaffes.
National Republicans were hoping that Hyde-Smith, the first woman to represent Mississippi in Congress, would be a lock for re-election in the deeply conservative state. However, comments that Hyde-Smith has made about attending a "public hanging" and making it "a little more difficult" for political opponents to vote have invited scrutiny.
A video of Hyde-Smith posted to Twitter earlier this month showed her praising a supporter, saying: "If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row." These comments were interpreted as insensitive because Mississippi had the most lynchings between 1882 and 1968 of any other state, with 581 lynchings. Espy, a former Clinton official and congressman, is black.
Later, another video posted by the same person on Twitter, the publisher of a liberal-leaning news site, showed Hyde-Smith discussing "liberal folks" and making it "just a little more difficult" for them to vote.
Hyde-Smith has refused to further explain her "public hanging" comments beyond an initial statement saying the reaction was overblown, and her campaign has said that the comments about creating barriers to voting were made in jest. However, the controversy is already having consequences: Walmart, the nation's largest retail chain, has asked the Hyde-Smith campaign to refund a total of $4,000 in campaign donations.
Mississippi has a sizable black population, which comprises nearly 40 percent of the population as a whole. Espy, who if elected would be the first black person to represent Mississippi in the Senate since Reconstruction, might be able to inspire black voters to turn out in a special election. Black voters buoyed Democrat Doug Jones to victory in his Senate race in neighboring Alabama last year.
Still, Hyde-Smith is the favorite to win in the race. President Trump is visiting Mississippi on Monday to rally on her behalf and encourage Republicans to vote. Mr. Trump told reporters on Tuesday that Hyde-Smith is a "spectacular woman" who "feels very badly" about the comments she made.