Cindy HydeSmith.jpg

Cindy HydeSmith

Louisiana blogger Lamar White sure managed to liven up Mississippi's U.S. Senate election, but Cindy Hyde-Smith won comfortably enough Tuesday.

Nobody gave her opponent, Mike Espy, a chance until White unearthed a video of Hyde-Smith averring she so appreciated one of her political supporters that, if he invited her to a public hanging, she'd be in the front row.

Soon thereafter, White posted footage of her suggesting that making it hard for “liberal folks to vote” would be a “great idea.”

Given that Mississippi led the nation in lynchings during Jim Crow, and Hyde-Smith's GOP in recent times has been accused of voter suppression in various states, both those remarks were, to put it mildly, in poor taste. Her remarks about making it hard for liberals to vote was a jest, her campaign said, and it does indeed seem unlikely that she was seriously proposing to disfranchise Democrats.

In response to the inevitable protestations of horror, Hyde-Smith said her public-hangings crack was merely an “exaggerated expression of regard” and attempts to impose a negative connotation were “ridiculous.” That claim was widely pooh-poohed, but University of Alabama professor Paul Reed, an authority on Southern idioms, up and confirmed that Hyde-Smith's macabre locution had indeed once commonly served to indicate approval.

Reed did, however, note that it offends modern sensibilities. If Hyde-Smith really did not know that, we might wonder whether she is smart enough for high office, especially as she was speaking at a campaign stop in Lee County, where at least two black people were lynched.

President Donald Trump initially did not want Hyde-Smith in the Senate, although not because of doubts about her faculties. Evidently the White House figured that, having been a Democrat until a year before her election as Mississippi Agriculture Secretary in 2011, she might be vulnerable on ideological grounds. Gov. Phil Bryant was asked to think again when he picked her for the seat that became vacant on Thad Cochran's retirement in March.

When Bryant insisted on sticking with Hyde-Smith, the White House said Trump would not campaign for her, but he changed his mind and played what he no doubt regards as a crucial role in the election she wound up winning to take the seat for the two years remaining on Cochran's term. Trump appeared on election eve in Tupelo, where Hyde-Smith had expressed her willingness to sit in the grandstand with a view of the scaffold.

It also emerged during the campaign that Hyde-Smith, when a state legislator, had sponsored a resolution honoring the last surviving daughter of a Confederate soldier who “defended his homeland” in the “War between the States.” There is no doubt where Hyde-Smith's sympathies lay during the debate about New Orleans Confederate monuments. When she visited Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis's place on the Gulf Coast in 2014, she had herself photographed wearing a kepi and toting a Confederate rifle. She posted the pictures on Facebook with the caption, “Mississippi history at its best.” She and her daughter both attended segregated schools.

Espy was the underdog throughout. Not only was he a black Democrat in a staunchly Republican state, but his own record was hardly spotless. As Bill Clinton's Secretary of Agriculture, he accepted gifts from companies he regulated and was charged with a slew of criminal offenses. Although Tyson Foods reached a plea bargain and paid a $6 million fine for handing sweeteners to Espy, he rolled the dice and went to trial. He was acquitted on all counts, apparently because prosecutors failed to link the gifts with specific official acts, but the GOP was not going to let voters forget his brush with the law during the Senate campaign.

Plenty of Mississippi voters share Hyde-Smith's fondness for the Confederacy, and it is unlikely the Senate race would have attracted much attention if the clip hadn't surfaced of her wearing a big smile while professing her willingness to watch someone swing. The shock waves that caused throughout the country obviously alarmed the GOP and may have galvanized Trump. But in the end, whatever he or White did, it would take a miracle for a Democrat to win a Mississippi U.S. Senate seat these days, even without the baggage.

Email James Gill at Gill1407@bellsouth.net.