Dems seize on opponents' comments in Mississippi Senate race

Espy, Hyde-Smith engaged in runoff

By ERIC BRADNER, CNN
Al Drago/Getty Images

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss.

(CNN) - To have a shot at another stunner in a Senate race in the Deep South, Democrats knew their candidate, Mike Espy, needed something dramatic to shift the landscape.

Then a progressive blogger posted videos in which Espy's opponent in the late-November runoff, Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, said she'd attend a "public hanging" if invited by a supporter, and that suppressing the votes of college students might be a "good thing."

On defense, Hyde-Smith called the comment about attending a public hanging "an exaggerated expression of regard." Her campaign said she was "making a joke" when, in front of a group that included students at Mississippi State University, she praised the idea of making it "just a little more difficult" for "liberal folks in those other schools" to vote.

But Democrats saw an opening.

Last year, in another runoff special Senate election in Alabama, a surge of African-American turnout led to a stunning victory for Democrat Doug Jones over Republican Roy Moore, who had been accused of sexually molesting and assaulting teenage girls.

The allegations gave voters in the state who don't typically support Democrats something to vote against.

Espy, a 64-year-old former congressman and agriculture secretary, now hopes Hyde-Smith's comments will similarly turbocharge turnout and tilt voters in the November 27 runoff against her.

"Here's what you're not going to get from me: You're not going to hear any talk about voter suppression. You're not going to hear any talk about public hanging," Espy told more than 100 women gathered at a hotel here on Saturday morning. Instead, Espy said, he would focus on education, gender equity and health care.

He said his election would reflect "a Mississippi that's moving forward, a Mississippi with a better image."

Espy told the group of mostly black women that Jones had won in Alabama because of support from women.

"What that did for Doug Jones in Alabama, you've got to do for me in Mississippi, you know what I'm saying?" he said.

Nationally known Democrats -- aware that the state holds an early primary that could be key in the Democratic presidential nominating process -- are also flocking to Mississippi to campaign with Espy.

California Sen. Kamala Harris campaigned with Espy on Saturday, telling the crowd at the hotel to "make a point about who we are as a country, symbolized by what the state of Mississippi is."

Asked about Hyde-Smith's comments after Saturday's event, Harris called them "harmful and hurtful" as well as "neglectful of understanding what those words mean in historical context."

Another potential 2020 presidential candidate, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, will travel to Mississippi on Monday.

'The ingredients are present'

Mississippi is a long shot for Democrats -- but it's not impossible.

In 2016, Donald Trump won the state by 18 percentage points. That's a blowout, but it's still closer than the margins were in other red states like Indiana and Missouri.

The state's elected attorney general, Jim Hood, is a Democrat, though a conservative one who downplays his party ties -- and he's running for governor in 2019.

Nearly 40% of Mississippi's population is black, and those that turn out to vote do so overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates.

And the mayor of Jackson, 35-year-old Chokwe Lumumba, is seen nationally as a rising progressive star.

"The ingredients are present," Lumumba said in an interview. "You have people that want something different. And I think you have a population that feels unsatisfied with the results."

Still, to win the Senate runoff, Espy must walk a tightrope, overperforming among African-American voters and college students in the state's urban areas in a runoff being held on the Tuesday after the Thanksgiving weekend while also winning a share of voters who typically back Republicans. It's difficult to do both.

"We need to be as radical or progressive as the circumstances dictate we should be," Lumumba said. "If you say yes to everyone, then ultimately you say no to everyone. If you play the middle in that regard, then no one feels organized, no one feels engaged."

National parties jockeying

National Democrats say the results in Alabama give them hope, but that Mississippi is even more difficult than some other deep red-state battles Democrats have won over the last two years. The party is likely to follow the same path it used in other states and districts typically hostile to Democrats, shielding its involvement through maneuvers like funding obscurely named super PACs.

If any Democrat has a chance of producing a Doug Jones-style overperformance among African-American voters, where they make up more of the electorate than they do the population, it's Espy, one national Democratic operative said.

"It's a hard race in a hard place, and we'd need to catch all the breaks," the operative said.

Republicans, meanwhile, are working to avoid another embarrassing loss in the Deep South.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee -- the Senate GOP's campaign arm -- is also spending $1.1 million on an ad that highlights Espy's work as a lobbyist and casts him as part of the DC "swamp."

And Trump will campaign for Hyde-Smith the evening before the election, with stops planned in Tupelo and Biloxi, Trump's campaign announced Saturday.

The President's visit "will be a good boost to make sure all conservatives know they have a very clear choice in this runoff election," Hyde-Smith said in a statement.

Her campaign said she was unavailable for an interview this week. She was in Washington, with the Senate in session.

Backlash over Hyde-Smith's comments

The controversy over Hyde-Smith's comments about a "public hanging" continues to spark backlash against her campaign in Mississippi, a state where the Confederate flag remains a part of the state flag.

More than 10,000 people signed a petition calling for her removal from office created by Mississippi Matters, a coalition of progressive groups.

The group held a protest Friday outside Hyde-Smith's office in Jackson. On Sunday, Jackson City Council member Aaron Banks organized rally against "hate and racism" at the state Capitol.

Hyde-Smith's campaign, meanwhile, sought to defuse the controversy over the newer video, in which she calls it a "good idea" to make it harder for college students to vote, with a tweet in which she is seen at the same event where the video was recorded laughing with two students -- one of whom is black.

"It's ok to still have a sense of humor in America isn't it?" the tweet posted to Hyde-Smith's account said. "These students enjoyed a laugh with Cindy despite out of state social media posts trying to mislead Mississippians."

On Friday evening, the black student in the picture, J.R. Coleman, took to Twitter with scathing criticism of Hyde-Smith's campaign over its use of the photo.

"As a Political Science major I want to understand and inform myself about every candidate. But I do not, however, support Cindy Hyde Smith. I am disgusted. The sole purpose of this picture being posted is because I am black," he said.

In another tweet, Coleman added, "She is attempting to show herself in a different light by using this photo of me. We were not laughing in regards to her terrible statements, and I don't appreciate this post trying to make it seem so."

Hyde-Smith's campaign deleted its tweet with the photo that included Coleman.

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