JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — National Democrats are focusing on Mississippi’s U.S. Senate runoff, a year after winning a longshot contest in another Deep South state dominated by Republicans.
Democrat Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore in Alabama last December after Moore was hit by accusations of sexual misconduct.
Now in Mississippi, Mike Espy is challenging Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith. She faces sharp criticism for a video that surfaced Sunday of her praising a supporter at a Nov. 2 campaign event in Tupelo by saying: “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”
Mississippi has a history of racially motivated lynchings. Hyde-Smith is white and Espy is black.
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Hyde-Smith said the hanging phrase was “an exaggerated expression of regard” for the person who invited her to speak. She also said it is “ridiculous” to think the phrase has a negative connotation.
Democratic consultant Joe Trippi retweeted the video of Hyde-Smith with the comment “incredible” and a request for people to donate to Espy.
Trippi, who is working for Espy, has been on several high-profile campaigns, including Jones’ in 2017. He told The Associated Press on Tuesday that Hyde-Smith’s verbal gaffe shows she is a weak candidate.
“She just doesn’t seem to be ready for prime time,” Trippi said.
Hyde-Smith was in her second term as Mississippi agriculture commissioner when Republican Gov. Phil Bryant appointed her to temporarily succeed longtime Sen. Thad Cochran, who retired amid health concerns in April. The winner of the Nov. 27 runoff will serve the final two years of the six-year term Cochran started.
Hyde-Smith and Espy each received about 41 percent in a four-person race Nov. 6 to advance to the runoff.
“Finishing literally in a dead heat with her helped some people understand Mike Espy really does have a shot,” Trippi said.
The two candidates will hold their only debate of the campaign season Nov. 20, debate sponsors said Tuesday.
Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who led the Republican National Committee in the mid-1990s, is raising money for a super PAC supporting Hyde-Smith. He said Tuesday that she is a reliable vote for President Donald Trump and Espy would not be.
Barbour said it’s important for Hyde-Smith to pick up votes from people who supported Chris McDaniel, a tea party-backed Republican state lawmaker who received about 16 percent and placed third last week.
“Most of the McDaniel people thought McDaniel was more conservative than Cindy Hyde-Smith and they see what Doug Jones has done in Alabama and they have no reason to believe that this wouldn’t be the exact result in Mississippi if we elected a Democrat,” Barbour told AP. “I think those people will vote and when they vote, they will vote for Cindy Hyde-Smith.”
Espy in 1986 became the first African-American to win a U.S. House seat in Mississippi since Reconstruction. He served as U.S. agriculture secretary in 1993 and 1994 under Democratic President Bill Clinton.
Mississippi has a 38 percent black population, and African-Americans are an important part of Democrats’ strategy for success. Two prominent African-American politicians who might run for president in 2020, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, traveled to Mississippi separately several weeks ago to campaign for Espy.
Democrats’ national Senate campaign arm is assisting in Mississippi, though officials were hesitant to elaborate about how or the extent to which the group was spending money on Espy’s behalf.
“It’s a Mississippi race run by Mississippians,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee senior adviser Ben Ray said Tuesday. “We want them to succeed.”
Still, Ray said there are parallels in Mississippi to the political dynamics in the 2017 Alabama special election runoff, when Jones, a former federal prosecutor, defeated Moore, a former state Supreme Court chief justice.
Espy’s campaign is benefiting from months of financial help from the Democratic National Committee, albeit indirectly. The DNC has spent more than $500,000 since last year on the Mississippi Democratic Party, including $10,000 per month for state party operations and a series of grants to finance staff to organize African-American neighborhoods.
The national party has also been strategically disciplined in what it hasn’t done in Mississippi in recent days.
As national parties are typically inclined to quickly and aggressively capitalize on perceived openings, the Democratic National Committee has been silent on Hyde-Smith’s “hanging” comment.
It’s part of an effort to minimize any perception that Washington is pulling the strings in Espy’s campaign. But it’s also a way of keeping the focus on Espy and Mississippi Democratic voters, while leaving Hyde-Smith to answer for her remark.
Espy said on MSNBC Monday that Hyde-Smith’s comment hurts Mississippi and “reinforces stereotypes that we’ve been trying to get away from for decades.”
Mississippi’s senior Republican U.S. senator, Roger Wicker, defended Hyde-Smith late Monday on Twitter.
“Senator Hyde-Smith’s words are being twisted by her opponent in order to malign her character and good-name, and to make political points,” Wicker tweeted. In a separate tweet, he wrote: “Cindy Hyde-Smith has great respect for all Mississippians.”
Thomas Beaumont contributed to this report from Des Moines, Iowa. For AP’s complete coverage of the U.S. midterm elections: http://apne.ws/APPolitics .