JACKSON, Miss. (AP) – A newly published video shows a white Republican U.S. senator in Mississippi praising someone by saying: “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”
Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith said Sunday her Nov. 2 remark was “exaggerated expression of regard” for someone who invited her to speak and “any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous.”
Mississippi has a history of racially motivated lynchings of black people.
Hyde-Smith faces a black Democratic challenger, former congressman and former U.S. agriculture secretary Mike Espy, in a Nov. 27 runoff.
Espy campaign spokesman Danny Blanton called Hyde-Smith’s remark “reprehensible.”
The runoff winner gets the final two years of a term started by longtime Republican Sen. Thad Cochran. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith to temporarily succeed Cochran, who retired amid health concerns in April. She will serve until the special election is resolved.
Hyde-Smith and Espy each received about 41 percent of the vote in a four-person race Tuesday to advance to the runoff.
If Espy is elected, he would be the first African-American since Reconstruction to represent Mississippi in the U.S. Senate. Hyde-Smith, who is endorsed by President Donald Trump, is the first woman to represent Mississippi in either chamber of Congress, and after being appointed is trying to become the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from the state.
“Cindy Hyde-Smith’s comments are reprehensible,” Blanton said in the Espy campaign statement Sunday. “They have no place in our political discourse, in Mississippi, or our country. We need leaders, not dividers, and her words show that she lacks the understanding and judgment to represent the people of our state.”
The video was shot in Tupelo, in front of a statue of Elvis Presley, who was born in the city in northeastern Mississippi. It shows a small group of white people clapping politely for Hyde-Smith.
“I referred to accepting an invitation to a speaking engagement,” Hyde-Smith said in a statement Sunday. “In referencing the one who invited me, I used an exaggerated expression of regard, and any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous.”
Lamar White Jr., publisher of a left-leaning Louisiana news site called The Bayou Brief, posted the video Sunday on social media. White told The Associated Press he received the video late Saturday from “a very reliable, trusted source,” but he would not reveal the person’s name. He said that source received it from the person who shot the video.
White said he believes he received the video because he has been writing about racism in the South for about a dozen years.
“There’s no excuse to say what she said,” White said of Hyde-Smith.
A Republican state lawmaker in Mississippi, Rep. Karl Oliver, came under sharp criticism in May 2017 after he posted on Facebook that people should by lynched for removing Confederate monuments.