A video clip featuring Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith "joking" about making voting "a little more difficult" for some people is causing a stir as Mississippi's Senate race heads into a runoff.
In the 18-second clip, Hyde-Smith says to a group of supporters, "And then they remind me, that there's a lot of liberal folks in those other schools who that maybe we don't want to vote. Maybe we want to make it just a little more difficult. So I think that's a great idea."
The video was shot at a Nov. 3 campaign event in Starkville, the executive editor of the Starkville Daily News, Ryan Phillips, confirmed on Twitter. Hyde-Smith can be seen standing outside her campaign bus in the video. It was first shared on social media by Lamar White Jr., the publisher and founder of The Bayou Brief, a nonprofit news organization in Louisiana. He told local news outlets that he did not film the video.
Hyde-Smith's campaign quickly issued a statement on Thursday in an attempt to do damage control. "Obviously, Sen. Hyde-Smith was making a joke and clearly the video was selectively edited," spokeswoman Melissa Scallan said in a Thursday statement.
Hyde-Smith faces a runoff election against Democrat Mike Espy in the race to fill longtime Republican Sen. Thad Cochran's seat. 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 on Nov. 27, which polling predicated.
"It's ok to still have a sense of humor in America isn't it?" the Hyde-Smith campaign later asked on Twitter, posting a picture of the senator at the same event alongside two Mississippi State University students. "These students enjoyed a laugh with Cindy despite out of state social media posts trying to mislead Mississippians."
The Espy campaign quickly issued a statement in response to the recording. "For a state like Mississippi, where voting rights were obtained through sweat and blood, everyone should appreciate that this is not a laughing matter," Espy spokesman Danny Blanton said in a statement. "Mississippians deserve a senator who represents our best qualities – not a walking stereotype who embarrasses our state."
The video of Hyde-Smith comes days after White released a now-viral video of the Republican Senate candidate, in which she says she would be "on the front row" at a "public hanging." White told local news outlets that he did not take that video either, which was recorded during a Nov. 2 campaign stop in Tupelo, Mississippi.
Espy called his opponent's comments about attending a public hanging "hurtful and harmful." "This is 2018," Espy said during a Monday morning appearance on CNN. "We need leaders who will try to unite us and not divide us," and Hyde-Smith's comments, he argued, "reinforce the stereotypes that have held back our state."
Other critics have contended that the video shows disrespect for the state's long history with racism that includes 581 lynchings between 1882 and 1968 — the most of any U.S. state in that period, according to the NAACP. Hyde-Smith and her campaign, however, have refused to explain or apologize for the comment, only calling her remarks "an exaggerated expression of regard." The campaign added, "any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous."
The Republican's voter suppression comments drew similar criticism on Thursday in a state where African-American voters used to face voter suppression policies, such as literacy tests and poll taxes, and where some strict voting policies remain enforced.
Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power tweeted about the video Thursday, saying, "This level of GOP transparency about voter obstruction ambitions testifies to the feeling of complete impunity that pervades. Voters and fair-minded judges must change this."
Meanwhile, Mississippi's Republican Party chairman Lucien Smith on Thursday claimed that the video was "heavily edited" and "misleading." He alleged it was used to deflect attention away from accusations that Espy accepted payments from an African despot.
White, however, told a local news outlet that there was no evidence the video was "selectively edited," as Hyde-Smith's campaign claimed. "This is what she said – verbatim," White said of Hyde-Smith's comments.
Amid the mounting backlash against Hyde-Smith, President Donald Trump is reportedly planning to swoop into Mississippi to save the troubled Republican candidate before her runoff election against Espy. Plans for a Trump rally in Mississippi are not yet finalized, but it is expected to take place on the eve of the runoff, Politico reports. The news outlet notes that it would be Trump's first rally since his nationwide pre-midterm tour. Trump won Mississippi by nearly 18 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election.