Live updates: Hyde-Smith debates Espy ahead of charged Miss. runoff

Embattled Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) is set to face off against Democrat Mike Espy in their only debate before the Mississippi runoff election on Nov. 27, the last remaining Senate contest of 2018.

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The debate comes during a tough month for Hyde-Smith, who has faced significant blowback after a video surfaced showed her joking she would be “on the front row” if a supporter invited her to a “public hanging.”

The joke drew sharp criticism in a state with a history of lynchings and a significant African-American population, leading Walmart and several other companies to end their financial support to her.

Hyde-Smith was appointed to the seat earlier this year to replace retiring former Sen. Thad Cochran (R). Her opponent, Espy, is a former official under President Clinton who is seeking to become the first black senator from the state since Reconstruction.

Follow live coverage of the debate here starting at 8 p.m. E.T.

Espy closes debate with "public hanging" attack

8:57 p.m.

Espy promotes bipartisanship in his closing remarks, including saluting former Sen. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranBottom Line Races Dems narrowly lost show party needs to return to Howard Dean’s 50 state strategy Espy files to run for Senate in 2020, setting up possible rematch with Hyde-Smith MORE (R) whose seat Hyde-Smith currently holds.

"I would hope to be the kind of senator that he was," Espy said.

But Espy then pivoted to attack Hyde-Smith over her "public hanging" comments, calling it detrimental to the state, while noting Walmart had announced it would end its financial support to Hyde-Smith.

Espy said he was "not going back to yesterday," and noting "we want to move forward. That's the kind of senator I want to be."

— Rafael Nam

Hyde-Smith emphasizes conservative record

8:53 p.m.

In her closing statement, Hyde-Smith emphasized her conservative record as she urged voters to hit the polls next week.

She said conservatism will be on the ballot and called on voters to “defend our conservative values.”

Hyde-Smith also promoted her conservative stances on a range of issues, saying that she supports less taxes and fewer regulations and that she is pro-life.

She also attacked Espy over his stance on abortion, saying that he is for “abortion on demand.”

— Michael Burke

Candidates again clash over pre-existing conditions

8:49 p.m.

Pre-existing conditions have again become an issue in the debate, with Espy attacking Hyde-Smith over the issue.

Hyde-Smith claimed that voters “will never see anyone fight as hard for patients” as she will, though she also said that Affordable Care Act is “the worst thing that has happened to us.”

“We cannot stand another day of ObamaCare that takes 100 billion dollars out of Medicare,” she said.

— Michael Burke

Lines of attack emerge

8:44 p.m.

Lines of attack are emerging as Hyde-Smith seeks to repeatedly paint Espy as "too liberal" for the state, while Espy continues to hit the point about his "independence," promising to put the state first.

Hyde-Smith also continues to pivot to pre-existing conditions as she seeks to reassure that she supports the policy, while trying to fend off attacks from Espy.

— Rafael Nam

Espy backs criminal justice reform

8:37 p.m.

Espy called for criminal justice reform, saying that many nonviolent offenders "shouldn't be" in prison. 

“We ought to give them some options to leave and go back to society in a responsible way.”

Hyde-Smith said she supports “common sense” reforms but didn’t provide any specific plans for reform.

She added that she supports law enforcement “100 percent of the time” and accused Espy of being “too liberal” for law enforcement.

— Michael Burke

Clash over gun control

8:32 p.m.

The candidates clashed on the hot-button issue of gun control, with Hyde-Smith casting herself as a staunch supporter of the right to bear arms, while Espy vouched for certain gun control measures.

“As your U.S. senator I will always protect your Second Amendment rights, and we can address school shootings issues with law enforcement. If they want to put guns in schools, we certainly have to work with law enforcement, but leave that up to the local school districts to make that decision,” Hyde-Smith said.

She then added that Espy had an anti-gun voting rights record when he was in Congress.

“Well, I don’t know who she’s talking about, I’m standing right here. I believe in the Second Amendment. I believe in the right to own and bear arms. I own pistols and shotguns in my home, taught my wife and son how to shoot,” Espy responded.

“Now I will say to you because of mass shootings and because of what’s happened in the intervening years, my thinking in a way has evolved in this way. Number one, if you’re on a no-fly list, if you can’t even get on a plane, then you probably shouldn’t own a gun without careful vetting. In the second way is that we need more vetting for that,” he said.

— Tal Axelrod

Espy denies taking improper gifts

8:30 p.m.

Espy denied taking improper improper gifts from the private sector while serving as agriculture secretary, responding to a moderator question about allegations that he faced more than two decades ago.

Espy called the allegations “unfair” and noted that he was acquitted by a jury in 1998.

In her response, Hyde-Smith said that there “have been a lot of shadows” cast over Espy. She alluded to a Fox News report that Espy was paid $750,000 from a lobbying contract with former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo.

Espy said he ended the contract when he learned Gbagbo was a "bad guy."

— Michael Burke

Hyde-Smith goes on attack on "public hanging" comment

8:25 p.m.

Hyde-Smith sought to explain her controversial "public hanging" comment, saying it had been made to express "her deep regard and commitment" to a backer of hers whose parents had died of cancer. 

She said her comments never implied she would "enjoy any type of capital punishment."

"There was no ill will whatsoever in my statement," she said, adding she had worked with Mississippians of all races, ages and incomes.

She then attacked Espy, saying her comments had "been twisted" and had been used against her as a "political weapon for political gain."

"Thats the type of politics that Mississippians are tired off" she said.

But Espy replied that "nobody twisted your comments cause they came from your month," calling it "another black eye that we don't need" in the the state, and saying they spoke to "stereotypes that don't need anymore."

— Rafael Nam

Candidates clash over health care

8:20 p.m.

Espy and Hyde-Smith clashed over coverage for pre-existing conditions, with the Democrat arguing that his opponent would vote against requirements on insurance companies to raise prices on such patients.

 “I’ve seen Sen. Hyde-Smith vote on pre-existing conditions. There was a bill in the Senate before the recess to make sure that insurance companies they could not deny coverage for those with pre-existing conditions. She voted against it. If I’m the senator I‘m going to vote for it,” he argued.

Hyde-Smith disagreed, pivoting to her opposition to the Affordable Care Act, which was the first legislation to provide such protections.

“I’m for the repeal of ObamaCare, I’m for free-market solutions, I have never voted for a bill that excluded pre-existing conditions. You know, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a pre-existing condition … ObamaCare, which has been a disaster, ruined rural America,” she said.

— Tal Axelrod

Hyde-Smith takes strong stance on immigration

8:15 p.m.

Both candidates called for securing the borders to prevent illegal crossings, but Hyde-Smith took a stronger stance against immigration.

She said that “we should definitely build that wall,” adding that “we can’t have people storming our borders.”

Espy called for a “strong immigration policy” but said migrants seeking asylum should be allowed to enter the country and said farmers should be allowed to hire migrant workers.

“If they have a valid purpose for coming in, then I think they ought to be able to do that. But anyone else can not come,” he said.

— Michael Burke

Candidates clash over Trump tariffs

Hyde-Smith defended Trump's tariffs when asked about the impact on Mississippi's farmers.

"I have met with the president and I proudly support him in negotiations of these trade agreements," she said.

She also noted she is "proud" that President TrumpDonald John TrumpProsecutors investigating Trump inaugural fund, pro-Trump super PAC for possible illegal foreign donations: NY Times George Conway: Why take Trump's word over prosecutors' if he 'lies about virtually everything' Federal judge says lawsuit over Trump travel ban waivers will proceed MORE has stepped in to renegotiate trade deals. 

However, Espy called it a "wrongheaded" policy that was hurting Mississippi farmers. 

"Be careful what you ask for," he said.

— Rafael Nam

Hyde-Smith plugs Trump in intro

8:10 p.m.

Hyde-Smith started her opening statement plugging Trump’s upcoming dual campaign rallies for her Monday, suggesting the GOP believes the president’s sway could be influential in the Magnolia State.

She also vowed to protect the conservative values shared by many Mississippi voters, citing several hot-button issues while attacking Espy as being "too liberal" for the state.

"I’ve always said it’s not about me, it’s about you, the things that are important to you: lower taxes, less regulations, supporting our military and veterans, protecting our unborn children, supporting our Second Amendment rights. You know, our conservative values, that’s what’s going to be on the ballot next Tuesday,” she said.

— Tal Axelrod

Espy says he will pursue "Mississippi First" policy

8:08 p.m.

In his introductory statement, Espy touted himself as the more qualified of the two candidates and promised to put "Mississippi first."

"My approach is Mississippi first. Mississippi over party. Mississippi over person," he said. “It means Mississippi each and every time,” he said.

He also said that, if elected, he would work to defend Social Security and Medicaid for seniors, protect coverage of pre-existing conditions and lower prescription drug prices.

— Michael Burke

Ready to go

7:53 p.m. 

We are moments away from the start of an eagerly anticipated debate.

Hyde-Smith had been seen as the overwhelming favorite in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1982 and one that President Trump won by almost 18 points in 2016.

But recent controversy about her “public hanging” debate has upended the contest, putting the difficult issue of race front and center.

All eyes will now be on how Hyde-Smith responds to the remarks, especially after a 2014 Facebook photo resurfaced this week showing her wearing a Confederate soldier’s hat during a visit to the estate of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

— Rafael Nam