Mississippi Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, a white Republican, joked about going to a “public hanging” during a campaign event this weekend, a comment her Democratic challenger, who is black, called “reprehensible” and divisive ahead of a runoff election later this month.
“If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row,” Hyde-Smith said on Sunday morning in Tupelo, Miss. during an event with a cattle rancher. It’s unclear what context the comments were made under, although she appeared to be praising the rancher, Colin Hutchinson.
Hyde-Smith, who was appointed to the Senate seat vacated by Thad Cochran in April, is running for her first full term in Congress. She will face Democrat Mike Espy in a runoff race on Nov. 27 after no candidate was able to secure a majority of the votes in the midterms earlier this month. She is favored to win.
Many critics of the comments pointed to Mississippi’s long history of racism and noted that the state had the highest rate of lynchings of African Americans in the country during the Jim Crow era, according to a report by the Equal Justice Initiative.
Espy, who garnered about 41 percent of the vote last week, said Sunday his opponent’s statements had “no place in our political discourse.” If elected, he would be the first black senator from the state since just after the Civil War, according to The Washington Post.
“We need leaders, not dividers, and her words show that she lacks the understanding and judgment to represent the people of our state,” he wrote on Twitter.
Hyde-Smith defended her comments in a statement to media outlets later in the day, saying there were simply an “exaggerated expression of regard” and that any “attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous.”
“To envision this brutal and degenerate type of frame during a time when Black people, Jewish people and immigrants are still being targeted for violence by White nationalists and racists is hurtful and harmful,” Johnson said in a statement. “Any politician seeking to serve as a national voice of the people of Mississippi should know better. Her choice of words serves as an indictment of not only her lack of judgment, but her lack of empathy, and most of all lack of character.”