Cindy Hyde-Smith: Who is the Mississippi senator embroiled in a racism scandal amid tense run-off?

Candidate's ill-considered lynching remark at rally throws campaign prospects in doubt

Joe Sommerlad
Tuesday 27 November 2018 17:32 GMT
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Mississippi Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith has found herself dogged by controversy in her fight to win the last Senate race of the season.

After neither she nor Democrat Mike Espy claimed 50 per cent of the vote at the midterm elections on 6 November, the pair were forced into a run-off for the seat.

The incumbent – and Mississippi’s first female senator - succeeded the long-serving Thad Cochran in April and was comfortably the favourite to win until a video of her making a racially-charged comment at a rally appeared on Twitter on 11 November, attracting over 2 million views in one day.

Expressing her friendship for a local rancher who had backed her campaign, Ms Hyde-Smith is heard to say: “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”

Mr Espy, hoping to become the first African-American senator in the state’s history, was quick to take issue with her words, telling CNN’s New Day: “They are hurtful to millions of Mississippians who are people of goodwill.

“And they’re harmful because they tend to reinforce the stereotypes that have held back our state for so long and that have cost us jobs and harmed our economy.”

Cindy Hyde-Smith
Cindy Hyde-Smith (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Ms Hyde-Smith’s subsequent apology, in which she described her phrase as “an exaggerated expression of regard”, did little to appease the outrage in a state home to the highest number of lynchings in the country between 1882 and 1968, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Forty per cent of Mississippi’s population is Africa-American, almost all of whom vote Democrat, prompting Republican fears the controversy could be enough to tip the balance.

Even President Donald Trump, in the south to rouse his core support base, had to admit at a roundtable event in Gulfport this week that her comment was “sad and a little flip” but insisted: “I know where her heart is and her heart is good.”

But the lynching remark was not the end of the matter.

The same blogger who posted the video, Lamar White Jr, investigated Ms Hyde-Smith further and found footage of her telling students at Mississippi State University that suppressing student votes at other colleges was “a great idea.”

“There’s a lot of liberal folks in those other schools who maybe we don’t want to vote. Maybe we want to make it just a little more difficult. And I think that’s a great idea,” Ms Hyde-Smith says in the video. Her campaign said that the remark was a joke.

As the story snowballed, The Jackson Free Press reported her parents had sent her to Lawrence County Academy, an all-white private school in her native Monticello that had been newly founded in 1970 to sidestep the desegregation ordered by the US Supreme Court after Brown vs Board of Education in 1954.

The school’s mascot was known as Colonel Reb and carried a Confederate flag. One “Cindy Hyde” can be seen among the cheerleaders posing with the icon in a yearbook photo uncovered by The Free Press. The senator's campaign responded to the report by attacking the “liberal media.”

Hyde-Smith would later send her own daughter, Anna-Michael, to a similar school, the Brookhaven Academy in nearby Lincoln County.

Next, CNN reported she had posed with Confederate artefacts including caps and rifles on a visit to the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library in 2014, posting the photographs on Facebook and recommending a visit to her followers: “Mississippi history at its best!”

Taken together, the episodes could damage the campaign of 59-year-old candidate no matter the explanations. A career politician and Democrat until 2010 now seeking to represent a state desperate to leave behind old associations with racism, Jim Crow and the slave trade.

As donors including Walmart publicly withdrew their support for Ms Hyde-Smith, Mr Espy pressed home his advantage, hoping to repeat the feat achieved by Doug Jones when he overthrew disgraced Republican Roy Moore in Alabama last year.

“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,” the narrator of one attack ad declares before branding her, “so embarrassing, she’d be a disaster for Mississippi.”

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To counter the “blue wave” washing Mike Espy to an unlikely victory in a state where President Trump won by 18 percentage points in 2016, the Republicans have outspent the Democrats by $4m (£3.1m) to $1.2m (£940,000) in the run-off, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

Whether their investment will be sufficient to see off the scandal remains to be seen but the case of Ms Hyde-Smith has once again revealed how painful the legacy of America's recent history still is for many.

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