Hyde-Smith, Espy spar in only debate before Mississippi runoff election

JACKSON, Miss. -- Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith and challenger Mike Espy debated each other Tuesday night for the first and only time ahead of next week's runoff election.

During the one-hour debate in Jackson Hyde-Smith sought to highlight her opponent's ties to national Democrats.

"If he is elected, he will vote with Chuck Schumer 100% of the time," Hyde-Smith said.

Espy repeatedly worked to distance himself from some of the more liberal positions.

"I believe in the right to own and bear arms. I own pistols," Espy said.

At another point, he said, "I don't like open borders."

But the discussion Tuesday night was as much about scandals as it was about issues.

For weeks, Hyde-Smith has been dogged by a video in which she joked about attending a public hanging.

She did apologize to those offended.

“For anyone that was offended by my comments, I certainly apologize. There was no ill will, no intent whatsoever in my statement."

The apology was a new approach for Hyde-Smith, who repeatedly refused to answer questions about the hanging comment at a news conference Nov. 12, the day after the publisher of a liberal-leaning news site posted the video on Facebook and Twitter.

The clip shows Hyde-Smith praising a cattle rancher at a Nov. 2 campaign event in Tupelo by saying: “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”

“There has never been anything, not one thing, in my background to ever indicate I had ill will toward anyone,” Hyde-Smith, a former state agriculture commissioner, said Tuesday night. “I’ve never been hurtful to anyone. I’ve always tried to help everyone. I also recognize that this comment was twisted and it was turned into a weapon to be used against me, a political weapon used for nothing but personal and political gain by my opponent. That’s the type of politics Mississippians are sick and tired of.”

"No one twisted your comments because the comments were live, you know, it came out of your mouth," Espy shot back. "I don’t know what’s in your heart but I know what came out of your mouth. It went viral in the first three minutes around the world. And so it’s caused our state harm. It’s given our state another black eye that we don’t need. It’s just rejuvenated those stereotypes that we don’t need anymore.”

Hyde-Smith soon got her chance to turn the tables on Espy. During the debate, she questioned a $750,000 lobbying contract Espy had in 2011 with the Cocoa and Coffee Board of the Ivory Coast. She noted that the country’s ex-president, Laurent Gbagbo, is being tried in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, including, Hyde-Smith said, “murder, rape and unspeakable things against young girls.”

“I don’t know how many Mississippians can really relate to an income that can command a $750,000 check from one person for a lobbying job,” said Hyde-Smith, who is a cattle rancher.

Espy, who is an attorney, said: “I found out later that this guy, the president, was a really bad guy. I resigned the contract.”

Federal registration papers show Espy terminated the contract two weeks before its scheduled end.

The candidates also debated the Republican tax bill. Hyde-Smith applauded it, while Espy said it only benefited the rich.

They also took differing views of President Trump's tariffs.

"I'm excited that the president has stepped up to renegotiate these deals," Hyde-Smith said.

"I've talked to soybean farmers in Mississippi. If they did foreign contracts, they're in trouble," Espy said.

Hyde-Smith is once again getting support from Trump. He plans to hold two rallies for her on Monday, a day before the election.