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Ahead of Senate runoff, how do Mississippi voters feel about ‘hanging’ remark?

Although Election Day is past, a Senate contest in Mississippi remains to be decided. The race has attracted national attention due to a controversial remark made by the Republican incumbent, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, in a social media video that went viral. John Yang speaks to NPR’s Sarah McCammon, who recently spoke with Mississippi voters about Hyde-Smith and her Democratic challenger, Mike Espy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first, the midterm elections aren't over yet. The final votes will be cast next Tuesday in a runoff to choose the next U.S. senator from Mississippi.

    John Yang has more.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, the race between Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, who was appointed earlier this year to replace Thad Cochran, who resigned, and former Democratic Congressman Mike Espy has became a national story because of this social media video.

  • Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss:

    If he invited me to a public hanging, I would be on the front row.

  • John Yang:

    Hyde-Smith spoke publicly about it for the first time last night in the candidates' only debate.

  • Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss:

    You know, for anyone that was offended for my — by my comments, I certainly apologize. There was no ill will, no intent whatsoever in my statements.

    I also recognize that this comment was twisted, and it was turned into a weapon to be used against me, a political weapon used for nothing but personal and political gain by my opponent. That's the type of politics Mississippians are sick and tired of.

  • Question:

    Mr. Espy, Secretary Espy.

  • Mike Espy:

    Well, no one twisted your comments, because the comments were live. You know, it came out of your mouth.

    And I don't know what's in your heart, but we all know what came out of your mouth. And it went viral within the first three minutes around the world. And so it's caused our state harm. It's given our state another black eye that we don't need. It's just rejuvenated old stereotypes that we don't need anymore.

  • John Yang:

    For more on this final Senate election of 2018, we're joined by Sarah McCammon of NPR, who is just back from Mississippi.

    Sarah, thanks for joining us.

    The original comment from Senator Hyde-Smith and what she said in the debate last night, how is this playing with voters in Mississippi?

  • Sarah McCammon:

    Well, I spent a couple of days talking to both Republicans and Democrats.

    And I will say I heard a lot of concern across the board. Although, from Democrats, it was, not surprisingly, much more intense concern. But even some of the Republicans I talked to acknowledge that these were unfortunate comments, that she shouldn't have said it the way she did, at least, although several — several people said they didn't think she meant it in a racially offensive way, but that it was nonetheless taken that way, given — given the history in Mississippi of — horrific history of lynchings and racial — racial violence.

    NAACP says Mississippi had the most lynchings of any state from roughly the late 1800s to the civil rights era.

  • John Yang:

    And this is not the only controversy that's surrounding Senator Hyde-Smith right now, is it?

  • Sarah McCammon:


    She's had a few incidents, remarks. She was also caught on tape recently suggesting that maybe we should make it harder for liberals to vote. And she said — her campaign said that was sort of taken out of context and was just a joke.

    But it's the kind of thing that, again, in a state like Mississippi with a history of voter suppression of African-Americans, a lot of people here with concern. Also in recent days, a Facebook post from a few years ago surfaced in which she could be seen wearing a Confederate hat and carrying a rifle, and the caption said something like, "Mississippi history at its best."

    So given the racial undertones there and, again, the historical context, a lot of concern, particularly from Democratic voters and from black voters that I talked to.

  • John Yang:

    Mike Espy, the Democratic candidate, has some history too.

    He was President Clinton's agriculture secretary. That tenure was cut — ended by corruption charges, charges of which — for which he was acquitted. There's also been some discussion about his lobbying history.

    Has that become an issue in the race?

  • Sarah McCammon:

    It has.

    Senator Hyde-Smith's campaign has very much tried to make it an issue, sent out press releases about it, came up during the debate last night. It's something that Espy has responded to repeatedly and has reiterated that he was exonerated.

    But we have seen both candidates really trying to sort of question the character and integrity of the other.

  • John Yang:

    This is a — Mississippi is a deep red state. Trump — President Trump wanted by 16 points. Roger Wicker, the other Republican senator, won it this month by 20 points.

    President Trump's going back in to campaign for Senator Hyde-Smith Monday. Are the Republicans worried about this race?

  • Sarah McCammon:

    Well, I think they are. I mean, we see them sending the president, as you say, making two stops in Mississippi on Monday.

    This is a deep red state. A Democrat has not won a Senate seat in Mississippi since 1982. So things are in Republicans' favor, but this is an unusual election. It's a runoff right after the holiday, right after the Thanksgiving holiday, the kind of election that really only motivated voters come out and vote in.

    And so both parties really want to drive out their base. And I think there is concern among Republicans that these remarks by Senator Hyde-Smith might turn out the Democratic base to vote for Mike Espy. That certainly is the hope of Democratic activists.

  • John Yang:

    And we will find out how it turns out next week.

    Sarah McCammon of NPR, thanks so much.

  • Sarah McCammon:

    Thank you.

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