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Amid racial controversies, Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith wins Mississippi US Senate runoff

Posted: 10:35 PM, Nov 27, 2018
Updated: 2018-11-28 12:03:57Z

Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith won Mississippi's US Senate runoff election in a contest that centered on her actions and comments evoking the state's dark history of racism and slavery.

Hyde-Smith defeated Democratic challenger Mike Espy, a former congressman and agriculture secretary, in the last Senate race to be decided in 2018. With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Hyde-Smith beat Espy with 53.9 percent of the votes. 

Her win on Tuesday means Republicans will hold 53 seats to Democrats' 47 seats in the Senate in January. The GOP grew its majority in the Senate by two seats in this year's midterm elections even as Democrats took control of the House.

President Donald Trump visited Mississippi on Monday to rally Republican voters behind Hyde-Smith after her comments about a "public hanging" set off weeks of controversy.

It began when video emerged online of her telling supporters earlier this month that she'd be "on the front row" if one of her supporters "invited me to a public hanging." She later called the comments an "exaggerated expression of regard," but her use of the phrase brought memories of Mississippi's history of lynchings to the forefront and put the contest under the national microscope.

Asked about her remark in a debate, Hyde-Smith said she would "certainly apologize" to anyone who was offended, but then pivoted to an attack on her opponent.

"This comment was twisted and it was turned into a weapon to be used against me," Hyde-Smith said.

Hyde-Smith's comments prompted deeper dives into her history.

The same progressive blogger who published the video of her using the phrase "public hanging" later published one in which Hyde-Smith told a small group at Mississippi State University that suppressing the votes of students at other colleges was "a great thing." Her campaign said it was a joke, but that explanation backfired when the black student seen laughing in a picture from the event her campaign posted on Twitter responded that Hyde-Smith's campaign was using him as a prop.

On Friday, the Jackson Free Press reported that Hyde-Smith had attended a private high school that was founded in 1970 so that white parents could avoid attempts to integrate public schools. Hyde-Smith's daughter later attended a similar private school established around the same time, according to the Free Press. The senator's campaign responded to the report by attacking the "liberal media."

Over the weekend, CNN reported that Hyde-Smith once promoted a measure that praised a Confederate soldier's effort to "defend his homeland" and had pushed a revisionist view of the Civil War.

In photos posted to her Facebook account in 2014, Hyde-Smith was pictured posing with Confederate artifacts during a visit to Beauvoir, the home and library of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The caption on the post read, "Mississippi history at its best!"

Democrats had hoped a surge in turnout among black voters -- who make up nearly 40% of Mississippi's population, the largest share in the nation -- could carry Espy to victory in a state that is highly polarized along racial lines, with most white voters backing GOP candidates and black voters supporting Democrats.

Espy's campaign hammered Hyde-Smith with television ads that cast her as an embarrassment to a state that has attempted to overcome its history of slavery and racism.

"We've worked hard to overcome the stereotypes that hurt our economy and cost us jobs. Her words should not reflect Mississippi's values, either," a narrator said in one ad. The ad also called Hyde-Smith "so embarrassing, she'd be a disaster for Mississippi."

Several companies that had donated to Hyde-Smith's campaign, including Walmart, publicly withdrew their support for the senator over the "public hanging" comment.

The controversies surrounding her set off a major push by national Republicans to avoid the same embarrassment they'd suffered last year in Alabama over the Senate campaign of Roy Moore and save Hyde-Smith.

While Hyde-Smith largely stayed off the campaign trail, the party's infrastructure rallied to her defense. GOP groups spent $4 million on the Mississippi runoff -- much more than Democrats' $1.2 million, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Republican groups spent more than twice as much as Democrats on television advertisements, per the ad tracking firm Kantar/CMAG.

Trump's visits to Mississippi on Monday night were also seen as bid to rally the Republican base to vote in an election taking place two days after the Thanksgiving weekend.