GOP US Sen. Hyde-Smith wins divisive runoff, keeps her seat


with additional reporting by Lee Eric Smith, The New Tri-State Defender

JACKSON, Miss.  — Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith won a divisive Mississippi runoff Tuesday, surviving a video-recorded remark decried as racist and defeating a former federal official who hoped to become the state’s first African-American senator since Reconstruction.

The runoff was rocked by the video, in which Hyde-Smith said of a supporter, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” A separate video showed her talking about “liberal folks” and making it “just a little more difficult” for them to vote.

The comments by Hyde-Smith, who is white, made Mississippi’s history of racist lynchings a theme of the runoff and spurred many black voters to return to the polls Tuesday.

In the aftermath of the video, Republicans worried they could face a repeat of last year’s special election in Alabama, in which a flawed Republican candidate handed Democrats a reliable GOP Senate seat in the Deep South. The GOP pumped resources into Mississippi, and President Donald Trump made a strong effort on behalf of Hyde-Smith, holding last-minute rallies in Mississippi on Monday.

Speaking to supporters after her win, Hyde-Smith vowed to fight for everyone in the state when she goes to Washington.

“I want everybody to know, no matter who you voted for today, I’m going to always represent every Mississippian. I will work very hard and do my very best to make Mississippi very proud,” she said.

That’s what Carolyn Myers of Holly Springs and citizens Marshall County are hoping for.

“I think if you’re going to represent, you should represent for all people, not just some of the people,” said Myers, who said she voted for Espy.

Espy won’t 59 percent of Marshall County’s vote. And even though voters knew an Espy win was unlikely, they still had a clear message for Hyde-Smith.

“Do what you say. Do your job,” added Ebony Scales, 30. “A lot of politicians get in office and we don’t hold them accountable. Once they do get in office, I just say do your job. If you’re gonna get the job, do it.”

Her supporters said the furor over her comments was overblown. They also stuck by her as a photo was circulated of her wearing a replica Confederate military hat during a 2014 visit to Beauvoir, the last home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis.

“So many things are taken out of context,” said Elizabeth Gallinghouse, 84, from Diamondhead, Mississippi. “The fact that she toured Jefferson Davis’s house. You or I could have done the same thing. They said, ‘Put this cap on. Hold this gun.’ It was a fun time. She wasn’t trying to send any messages.”

Webb said she ignored the noise.

“That stuff doesn’t sway my vote,” said Webb, who voted for Espy. “It’s typical politics, you know. That cutthroat stuff. So I really don’t even pay that no mind. I’ll be glad when the commercials are over with, to be honest.”

The contest caps a campaign season that exposed persistent racial divisions in America — and the willingness of some political candidates to exploit them to win elections. With Hyde-Smith’s victory, Republicans control 53 of the Senate’s 100 seats. The GOP lost control of the House, where Democrats will assume the majority in January.

In the final weeks of the runoff, Hyde-Smith’s campaign said the remark about making voting difficult was a joke. She said the “public hanging” comment was “an exaggerated expression of regard” for a fellow cattle rancher. During a televised debate nine days after the video was publicized, she apologized to “anyone that was offended by my comments,” but also said the remark was used as a “weapon” against her.

Democratic opponent Mike Espy, 64, a former U.S. agriculture secretary, replied: “I don’t know what’s in your heart, but I know what came out of your mouth.”

Addressing his supporters Tuesday night, Espy said: “While this is not the result we were hoping for, I am proud of the historic campaign we ran and grateful for the support we received across Mississippi. We built the largest grassroots organization our state has seen in a generation.”

Among those voters was Gary Gill. In what must be considered a political anomaly, Gill said he switched his vote from Hyde Smith to Espy – and the race controversy played a role.

“I crossed parties today. That’s something I don’t usually do,” said Gill, of Olive Branch. “Some of the things that have been said had a lot to do with it.”

But the deciding factor for Gill was Espy’s support for health care reform.

“He was talking about insurance and the other stuff,” said Gill, who walks with a limp and says he’s on disability. “Democrats are for Medicaid, Social Security. Republicans are trying to take it away or reduce it. I’m on disability, so that hits me real hard.”

The “public hanging” comment also resonated with his supporters. “That really offended me,” said Charles Connley, 60, a black voter from Picayune.

Some corporate donors, including Walmart, requested refunds on their campaign contributions to Hyde-Smith after the videos surfaced.

Hyde-Smith was in her second term as Mississippi agriculture commissioner when Republican Gov. Phil Bryant appointed her to temporarily succeed GOP Sen. Thad Cochran.

The longtime lawmaker retired in April amid health concerns.

The win makes Hyde-Smith, 59, the first woman elected to Congress from Mississippi.
Hyde-Smith and Espy emerged from a field of four candidates Nov. 6 to advance to Tuesday’s runoff. Her win allows her to complete the final two years of Cochran’s six-year term.

Shortly after the win Tuesday, Trump tweeted: “Congratulations to Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith on your big WIN in the Great State of Mississippi. We are all very proud of you!”

Gill had an even shorter directive.

“Watch your mouth,” he said with a chuckle. “That’s all I got to say.”

Associated Press writers Jeff Amy and Janet McConnaughey contributed to this report.
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