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MS-Sen: GOP Sen. Hyde-Smith's 'public hanging' comment prompts accusations of racism

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) has denied that her comment referencing a "public hanging" carried any negative or racial subtext. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde Smith of Mississippi is having to fight off accusations of racism after a joking reference to attending a "public hanging" went public over the weekend, according to NBC News.

In a video recorded Nov. 2, Hyde-Smith was at a campaign stop with a local rancher named Colin Hutchinson in Tupelo, Mississippi. In response to a compliment from Hutchinson, Hyde-Smith responded "If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row."

Here's a video posted by Lamar White Jr. of the Bayou Brief:

This is important because: Hyde-Smith is locked in a runoff race against Democratic opponent Mike Espy, a black man who called Hyde-Smith's remark "reprehensible." On Election Day, Hyde-Smith earned 41.5 percent of the vote, and Espy earned 40.6 percent.

Hyde-Smith says it was a harmless remark: "In a comment on Nov. 2, I referred to accepting an invitation to a speaking engagement," Hyde-Smith said in a statement. "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."

Espy says the comment is disqualifying: "Cindy-Hyde-Smith's comments are reprehensible," said Espy, the former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, in a statement. "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."

Election implications: Espy is still an underdog in the race. 16 percent of the vote went to Republican candidate state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who ran to the right of Hyde-Smith; so it's likely that most of those votes will go to the incumbent.

But, black people make up 31 percent of all voters in Mississippi, and it's possible that backlash from Hyde-Smith's comment could boost turnout in that demographic.

Historical context: Mississippi had more lynchings (581) than any other state between 1882 and 1968, according to the NAACP. So, whether or not Hyde-Smith meant anything nefarious with her remark, many people heard it through the lens of that violent history.

The runoff election will take place Nov. 27.

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