Sen: Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith defeats Democratic challenger Mike Espy in runoff

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Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith defeats Democrat Mike Espy in special election; Peter Doocy reports from Jackson, Miss.

MS voters went back to the polls today for an unusual special U.S. Senate election runoff, with incumbent Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith (who was appointed to the position earlier this year) heavily favored over former congressman and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy.

But the runoff turned into a referendum on race and Mississippi's racial past after two videos surfaced earlier this month that thrust Hyde-Smith into controversy and put her uncomfortably in the national spotlight. Because neither Hyde-Smith nor Espy garnered more than 50 percent of the vote on Election Day - both received slightly more than 40 percent -the race advanced to a runoff.

The race was rocked by the video, in which Hyde-Smith said of a supporter, 'If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row'.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith to the Senate in April to replace Sen.

When the extended footage of the encounter was released for context, the comment became more troubling because it revealed Hyde-Smith was using the phrase in an attempt to thank a supporter for saying she would fight for him.

U.S. President Donald Trump had said at the Biloxi campaign rally on November 26 that illegal immigrants, such as those participating in the caravans between Mexico and the United States, are unfairly disadvantaging American workers. What did help Hyde-Smith though is that Trump is well liked in the state. The state could soon have its first elected female senator or first black senator since Reconstruction. The last Democrat Mississippians elected to the Senate from the state was John Stennis in 1982 for the final term of his four-decade career in the chamber. Thad Cochran's term, who retired earlier this year due to health concerns.

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Hyde-Smith drew controversy toward the end of the campaign when she was caught joking about attending a public hanging.

The video sparked a furor in the deep South state that has a history of racism and violence against blacks, including lynchings.

She said of Hyde-Smith's comments, "My culture and my heritage have come too far to endure that". They also stuck by her as a photo was circulated of her wearing a replica Confederate military hat during a 2014 visit to Beauvoir, the last home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Even Republicans say she badly mishandled the fallout, refusing to apologize for more than a week before issuing a quasi-apology to "anyone that was offended" during her debate with Espy.

Additionally, when Hyde-Smith was in school she attended a whites-only segregated academy, set up by parents to avoid racially integrated schools.

The controversies surrounding her set off a major push by national Republicans to avoid the same embarrassment they'd suffered past year in Alabama over the Senate campaign of Roy Moore and save Hyde-Smith. The caption on the post read, "Mississippi history at its best!"

Several businesses, including giant retailer Walmart, had demanded Hyde-Smith return their donations after her public hanging comment.

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