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Republican senator's provocative 'jokes' jolt key US Senate race

First it was a "joke" about public hangings. Then it was another joke about making it tougher for certain people to vote.
Republican U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith for Mississippi talks to supporters following the 2018 mid-term general election in Jackson, Mississippi, November 6, 2018.
Republican U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith for Mississippi talks to supporters following the 2018 mid-term general election in Jackson, Mississippi, November 6, 2018. 

When putting together a list of key U.S. Senate races in 2018, few included the special election in Mississippi. It's a state where Donald Trump won his election by 18 points, and where Republicans tend to dominate.

But in this year's final major contest, election watchers suddenly have a reason to keep an eye on the Magnolia State.

It was earlier this week that we learned about comments from incumbent Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R), who recently joked about attending "a public hanging." Given the state's history, and the fact that she's running against Mike Espy (D), an African American former congressman, the Republican's comments struck a dissonant note.

Yesterday, the story took another unsettling turn.

A video surfaced Thursday of Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi saying it might be a "great idea" to make it harder for some people to vote, and her campaign quickly responded that she was "obviously" joking.Hyde-Smith, who is in a runoff against Democrat Mike Espy on Nov. 27, made the remark at a campaign stop in Starkville, Mississippi, on Nov. 3. It was posted to Twitter on Thursday by Lamar White Jr., publisher of The Bayou Brief. Smith earlier this week posted video of Hyde-Smith making a comment on Nov. 2 about a "public hanging" that started a controversy."And then they remind me that there's a lot of liberal folks in those other schools who ... maybe we don't want to vote," Hyde-Smith is heard saying. "Maybe we want to make it just a little more difficult. And I think that's a great idea."

In a Twitter message posted late yesterday, the GOP senator wrote, "It's ok to still have a sense of humor in America isn't it?"

Of course, while having a sense of humor is a good idea, it's also a good idea for political leaders in a state with a troubled history on race to avoid "jokes" about public hangings and deliberately making it harder for certain people to vote.

A spokesperson for Mike Espy's campaign called Hyde-Smith a "walking stereotype who embarrasses our state," adding, "For a state like Mississippi, where voting rights were obtained through sweat and blood, everyone should appreciate that this is not a laughing matter."

I'll leave it to local experts to say whether, and to what degree, this might affect the upcoming election, but at a distance, there's reason to believe the race may be more competitive than many first assumed.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee launched a television ad campaign in the state this week, and if Hyde-Smith was a shoo-in, the party probably wouldn't have bothered. The White House, meanwhile, is reportedly weighing a possible presidential pre-election visit to Mississippi.

The Republican senator launched a new ad of her own this week, and one of the first names mentioned in the commercial is financier George Soros -- which is hardly evidence of a candidate confident about her chances of success.

Last week, in a multi-candidate field, Hyde-Smith finished with 41.5% of the vote, to Espy's 40.6%. Because neither candidate reached the 50% threshold, there will be a special election on Nov. 27, which is just 11 days away.

The two candidates are also scheduled to participate in a debate on Nov. 20.