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United States

Divisive US run-off election race ends with Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith victory

  • Divisive comments from the US senator had caused turmoil ahead of the polls in Mississippi
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2018, 6:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2018, 6:02pm

Republican US Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith returns to Washington as a solidly loyal Trump supporter after the president stumped for her in what was a divisive run-off marked by racial turmoil over a video-recorded remark Hyde-Smith made decried as racist.

Hyde-Smith defeated Democrat Mike Espy, who was vying to become the state’s first African-American senator since Reconstruction, during Tuesday’s run-off.

The race was rocked by the video, in which Hyde-Smith said of a supporter, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” A separate video showed her talking about “liberal folks” and making it “just a little more difficult” for them to vote.

The comments by Hyde-Smith, who is white, made Mississippi’s history of racist lynchings a theme of the run-off and spurred many black voters to return to the polls on Tuesday.

In the aftermath of the video, Republicans worried they could face a repeat of last year’s special election in Alabama, in which a flawed Republican candidate handed Democrats a reliable GOP Senate seat in the Deep South. The GOP pumped resources into Mississippi, and President Donald Trump made a strong effort on behalf of Hyde-Smith, holding last-minute rallies in Mississippi on Monday.

Speaking to supporters after her win, Hyde-Smith vowed to fight for everyone in the state when she goes to Washington.

“I want everybody to know, no matter who you voted for today, I’m going to always represent every Mississippian. I will work very hard and do my very best to make Mississippi very proud,” she said. Speaking to reporters later she said Trump had called to congratulate her and said she’d “been through a storm” and “survived it with grace.”

Her supporters said the furore over her comments was overblown. They also stuck by her as a photo was circulated of her wearing a replica Confederate military hat during a 2014 visit to Beauvoir, the last home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis.

“So many things are taken out of context,” said Elizabeth Gallinghouse, 84, from Diamondhead, Mississippi. “The fact that she toured Jefferson Davis’s house. You or I could have done the same thing. They said, ‘Put this cap on. Hold this gun.’ It was a fun time. She wasn’t trying to send any messages.”

The contest caps a campaign season that exposed persistent racial divisions in America – and the willingness of some political candidates to exploit them to win elections. With Hyde-Smith’s victory, Republicans control 53 of the Senate’s 100 seats. The GOP lost control of the House, where Democrats will assume the majority in January.

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In the final weeks of the run-off, Hyde-Smith’s campaign said the remark about making voting difficult was a joke. She said the “public hanging” comment was “an exaggerated expression of regard” for a fellow cattle rancher. During a televised debate nine days after the video was publicised, she apologised to “anyone that was offended by my comments,” but also said the remark was used as a “weapon” against her.

Democratic opponent Espy, 64, a former US agriculture secretary, replied: “I don’t know what’s in your heart, but I know what came out of your mouth.”

Addressing his supporters Tuesday night, Espy said: “While this is not the result we were hoping for, I am proud of the historic campaign we ran and grateful for the support we received across Mississippi. We built the largest grass roots organisation our state has seen in a generation.”

The “public hanging” comment also resonated with his supporters. “That really offended me,” said Charles Connley, 60, a black voter from Picayune.

Some corporate donors, including Walmart, requested refunds on their campaign contributions to Hyde-Smith after the videos surfaced.

Hyde-Smith was in her second term as Mississippi agriculture commissioner when Republican Governor Phil Bryant appointed her to temporarily succeed GOP Senator Thad Cochran. The long-time lawmaker retired in April amid health concerns.

The win makes Hyde-Smith, 59, the first woman elected to Congress from Mississippi.

Hyde-Smith and Espy emerged from a field of four candidates November 6 to advance to Tuesday’s run-off. Her win allows her to complete the final two years of Cochran’s six-year term.

Shortly after the win Tuesday, Trump tweeted: “Congratulations to Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith on your big WIN in the Great State of Mississippi. We are all very proud of you!”