FILE PHOTO: U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith speaks during a campaign event in Meridian, Mississippi, U.S., November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman/File Photo
November 28, 2018
By John Whitesides
(Reuters) – Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith won a U.S. Senate special election runoff in conservative Mississippi on Tuesday, U.S. media projected, defeating a black challenger after a campaign that recalled the state’s history of racist violence.
The white former state lawmaker, who was appointed to the Senate in April, overcame a controversy over her comment on public hangings to defeat Democrat Mike Espy in the last contest of the 2018 election cycle.
Hyde-Smith, 59, is the first woman ever elected to either chamber of Congress from Mississippi.
She had been heavily favored in the reliably Republican state, but became engulfed in a political storm over a video showing her praising a supporter at a Nov. 2 event by saying, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”
The video sparked a furor in the deep South state with a history of racism and violence against blacks, including lynchings, and fueled Democratic hopes of an upset in a state where 38 percent of the population is black.
But Hyde-Smith triumphed by depicting Espy as too liberal for Mississippi, which last elected a Democrat to the Senate in 1982, and by touting her support for President Donald Trump, who won the state by 18 percentage points in 2016 and attended two get-out-the-vote rallies in the state on Monday.
Her victory means Republicans will hold a 53-47 majority in the new U.S. Senate that convenes in January.
Espy, 64, campaigned as a moderate who would work with Trump and Republicans to benefit the state. He tried to recreate the coalition that propelled Democrat Doug Jones to a Senate win in neighboring Alabama last year by energizing black voters, particularly women, and winning support from white swing voters.
The runoff to serve the last two years of former Republican Senator Thad Cochran’s term was necessary because neither Espy nor Hyde-Smith gained more than 50 percent of the vote in a Nov. 6 special election with four candidates. Cochran, 80, resigned earlier this year, citing health concerns.
Several businesses, including giant retailer Walmart, had demanded Hyde-Smith return their donations after her public hanging comment. She sparked further controversy when she was shown on another video joking about suppressing liberal student votes, and photographs surfaced of her posing with Confederate artifacts in 2014.
She initially refused to apologize for the hanging remark, but said in a debate last week that she was sorry “for anyone that was offended.” She accused Espy of twisting her words for political gain.
Espy denied the charge and said “we all know what came out of your mouth.” He has said the comment perpetuated negative stereotypes about Mississippi and hurt investment.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and; Sonya Hepinstall)