November 20, 2018 / 5:47 PM / 6 months ago

UPDATE 2-In Mississippi U.S. Senate race, a 'hanging' remark spurs Democrats

 (Adds Hyde-Smith apology in debate)
    By John Whitesides
    JACKSON, Miss., Nov 20 (Reuters) - A white Republican
senator's casual reference to a "public hanging" has inflamed a
special election runoff in Mississippi, fueling Democratic hopes
of an upset in a conservative state with an ugly history of
racist violence.
    The U.S. Senate race between appointed Republican incumbent
Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democrat Mike Espy, a black former
congressman and U.S. agriculture secretary, will test the power
of the black vote and the viability of Democrats in a region
where Republicans have dominated for decades.
    The Nov. 27 runoff, which caps a congressional election
cycle drawn out by recounts and too-close-to-call races, will
not affect the balance of power in Congress. Republicans will
hold a Senate majority even if Hyde-Smith loses and Democrats
will control the House of Representatives.
    Espy, 64, is a heavy underdog in the Deep South state, which
has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1982. But his
campaign got a jolt of adrenaline when a video surfaced a week
ago showing Hyde-Smith, 59, praising a supporter by saying: "If
he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row."
    The comment set off a furor in Mississippi, a state scarred
by a history of racism and violence against blacks, including
lynching. According to the NAACP civil rights group, Mississippi
had 581 lynchings between 1882 and 1968, more than any other
    Advocacy groups conducting a voter turnout drive aimed
primarily at African-Americans, who make up 38 percent of the
state's residents, said their efforts had gained new urgency.
    "If people recognize the importance of this moment, there is
an opportunity for Secretary Espy to win this race," said Chokwe
Antar Lumumba, the black Democratic mayor of Jackson, the
state's largest city. "If we can show progress in a state with
such historic suffering, then what does it say about the
    Hyde-Smith, a former state legislator appointed in April to
replace retiring Senator Thad Cochran, released a statement
calling the Nov. 2 comment "an exaggerated expression of regard"
for a friend.
    She apologized for the remarks for the first time during a
debate on Tuesday, but said Espy had twisted her words for
political gain - a charge he denied.             
    Retailer Walmart Inc        , medical device maker Boston
Scientific Corp         and railroad Union Pacific Corp        
made public requests this week for Hyde-Smith to return their
donations because of the remarks.
    Espy would be the first black senator from Mississippi since
shortly after the Civil War. He told reporters that Hyde-Smith's
"disappointing, hurtful" remarks perpetuated stereotypes
Mississippi was striving to overcome.
    "There was already a high level of engagement but her
comments took everything up to a whole new level," said
Cassandra Welchlin, co-director of the Mississippi Black Women's
Roundtable, one of at least two dozen advocacy groups involved
in turnout efforts.
    Welchlin's group is partnering with childcare centers,
churches and sororities to target infrequent black women voters.
Other groups are focusing on registered black voters who did not
participate in the Nov. 6 election, using phone banks, texting
parties and ride-shares to get them out.
    Mississippi Democrats hope to recreate the coalition that
propelled Democrat Doug Jones to a Senate victory in neighboring
Alabama last year by energizing black voters, particularly
women, and appealing to white swing voters.
    Espy has used the Jones race as a template, focusing on
issues like rural healthcare, equal pay and education. A
political moderate, he portrays himself as a bridge-builder in a
state where Republican President Donald Trump is popular.
    At a weekend breakfast in Jackson, Espy told black women
leaders that Jones was elected because women turned out to
support him. "What that did for Doug Jones in Alabama, you have
to do for me in Mississippi," he said.
    The runoff to serve the last two years of Cochran's term was
needed because no candidate gained more than 50 percent of the
vote in a Nov. 6 special election. Hyde-Smith and Espy, who
nearly deadlocked at about 41 percent, met in their only debate
on Tuesday night.
    Both the Republican and Democratic national parties have
sent help to Mississippi for the runoff.
    Trump will hold two get-out-the-vote rallies in the state
next week, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee said
it was spending at least $800,000 on ads. That will be augmented
by $1 million from the Senate Leadership Fund, an outside group
aligned with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
    National Democratic committees are sending staff to help get
out the vote, and the Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC has
started a $500,000 ad buy. Senators Kamala Harris of California
and Cory Booker of New Jersey, who are both African-American and
potential 2020 presidential contenders, campaigned with Espy.
    "This is a race that has national importance," Harris said
at the Jackson breakfast, saying the outcome would "make a point
about who we are as a country, symbolized by the state of
    Hyde-Smith has hammered Espy as too liberal for Mississippi.
She touts her endorsement from Trump, who won Mississippi by 18
percentage points in 2016, and campaigns in a bus with a
blown-up photo of her and Trump stretched across the side.
    "This race is a conservative versus a liberal and
Mississippi is a conservative state," said Melissa Scallan, a
spokeswoman for Hyde-Smith. She declined to comment on the
hanging remarks.
    Hyde-Smith became embroiled in another controversy last week
when a video surfaced in which she seemed to endorse the voter
suppression of liberal students as "a great idea." In a
statement, Hyde-Smith's campaign said she was joking.
    The wild card in the runoff will be how many supporters of
Republican Chris McDaniel, a hardline conservative who captured
16.5 percent of the vote on Nov. 6, stay home or back Espy
instead of Hyde-Smith.
    McDaniel had criticized Hyde-Smith, a former Democrat who
switched parties in 2010, as insufficiently conservative but
endorsed her. 
    Hal Marx, a McDaniel supporter and mayor of the small town
of Petal, said he was not enthusiastic about Hyde-Smith but
would vote for her.
    "She isn't the best choice possible but of the two that are
left we need a Republican in the seat," Marx said.

 (Reporting by John Whitesides; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and
Peter Cooney)
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