Five takeaways from Mississippi's Senate debate

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) and her Democratic challenger, Mike Espy, faced off in their only debate ahead of the Mississippi runoff election on Nov. 27, clashing on issues from the Republican's controversial "public hanging" comments to health care and immigration.

Both candidates sought to draw sharp contrasts throughout the debate: Hyde-Smith repeatedly promoted her conservative credentials and tied herself closely to President TrumpDonald John TrumpAustralia recognizes West Jerusalem as Israeli capital, won't move embassy Mulvaney will stay on as White House budget chief Trump touts ruling against ObamaCare: ‘Mitch and Nancy’ should pass new health-care law MORE, while Espy promised he would remain independent if elected to represent the deep-red state.

Here are the five takeaways from Tuesday's debate, in what is the last remaining Senate contest of 2018.

Hyde-Smith apologizes for 'public hanging' comment

Hyde-Smith's recent comments that she would be “on the front row” if a supporter invited her to a “public hanging” garnered most of the headlines in the days leading to the debate. But they ended up occupying only a small, albeit memorable, portion of the debate.

The Republican senator sought to defend her comments, saying they were made to express support for a supporter who had lost his parents to cancer.

She denied that the comments were made to "imply I would enjoy any type of capital punishment" and emphasized "there was no ill will whatsoever in my statement."

“For anyone who was offended by my comment, I certainly apologize," she said.

She then sought to attack Espy, saying her comments were "twisted" and "used for nothing but political gain."

Espy went on the attack, saying that "nobody twisted your comments because they came out from your mouth."

In one of the most memorable lines, the Democrat noted that the comments had "caused our state harm."

"It’s given our state another black eye that we don't need,” he added, while noting it had brought up "stereotypes we don't need anymore."

Neither candidate, nor any of the moderators, brought up the controversy again until the closing moment when Espy took another dig at Hyde-Smith for having hurt the state.  

Health care and pre-existing conditions take center stage

A significant portion of the debate focused on health care and pre-existing conditions, a common theme this campaign cycle.

Like other Senate races where Republicans have been on the defensive, Hyde-Smith repeatedly said she supported protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

“I strongly believe in the pre-existing conditions,” she said, though she also called for a repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

She noted she had co-sponsored a bill introduced by Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisSenate votes to overturn IRS guidance limiting donor disclosure GOP tensions running high on criminal justice bill Trump tells McConnell to let Senate vote on criminal justice reform MORE (R-N.C.), called the Ensuring Coverage for Patients with Pre-Existing Conditions Act, that she says would protect patients with pre-existing conditions.

But like other Democratic Senate candidates, Espy accused Hyde-Smith of being deceitful in touting her support for people with pre-existing conditions, saying that she voted against legislation in the Senate that would have prevented insurers from selling what Espy described as “junk insurance” plans to patients.

Ivory Coast dictator sparks heated exchange

Hyde-Smith sought to make Espy’s controversial 2011 lobbying contract in the Ivory Coast a frequent attack line throughout the debate following a Fox News report that the Democrat took a $750,000 contract with the West African country's government.

Ivory Coast was led at the time by Laurent Gbagbo, who is now on trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. 

Hyde-Smith called Gbagbo a man who was on trial for crimes including murder, rape and doing "unspeakable things to small children."

“To think that he has been hired by a foreign dictator to the tune of $750,000," Hyde-Smith said, referring to Espy.

But Espy said he forfeited a contract extension after he realized “how bad the guy was,” referring to Gbagbo, and that he passed his knowledge on to intelligence services.

According to the Fox News report last week, Espy took a contract with the Ivory Coast’s government-controlled Cocoa and Coffee Board in 2011. Its products were subject to multiple embargoes resulting from state-sponsored violence in the country. 

Espy initially said in February 2011 that he ended his work early and only accepted $400,000, but Fox News reported that documents Espy later filed showed an additional $350,000 payment in March of that year.

Hyde-Smith highlights her pro-Trump views

Besides defending her support for protections for people with pre-existing conditions, Hyde-Smith had another clear strategy in the debate: tie herself to Trump.

In both her opening and closing statements, the interim senator plugged the president’s upcoming campaign rallies in Mississippi on Monday, which will be held on the eve of the runoff in an effort to bolster her candidacy. 

Trump was seen as a factor in some Senate races across the country, allowing Republicans to extend their majority to 52-47 from 51-49 before the midterms.

Hyde-Smith also stressed a number of her conservative stances on issues that align with the president.

When the candidates were asked about immigration, Hyde-Smith called for a wall to be built along the southern border — a proposal that was a key message for Trump in 2016.

“I think we should definitely build that wall. I think we have to build that wall. We can’t have people storming our borders,” she said. 

She also reiterated during the debate that she supports lower taxes and fewer regulations and that she is anti-abortion. As she touted those views, she called on voters to hit the polls next week to defend Mississippi’s “conservative values.”

Espy promises independence in 'Mississippi First' strategy

If Hyde-Smith's strategy was to promote her support for Trump, Espy's was equally clear: to tout his independence and parry the Republican's attacks that he was "too liberal" for the state.

In his opening statement, Espy promised that he would put “Mississippi first.”

“That means Mississippi over party. Mississippi over person,” he said. “I don’t care how powerful that person might be. It means Mississippi each and every time.”

He added that he wouldn’t let “anybody in the federal government run over you.”

Espy also took moderate positions throughout the debate, including promising to defend the Second Amendment and touting his ownership of guns, though also calling for more vetting on gun sales.

At another point, he called for a "strong immigration policy" while also saying those seeking asylum should be allowed to enter the country.

And in his closing statement, Espy criticized the current state of Congress and said he would “lift us above all the noise” and reach across the aisle to bring people of Mississippi together.

“I really believe I can do that. I’ve done it all my life,” he said. 

He even praised 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), who retired earlier this year because of poor health and whose seat Hyde-Smith was appointed to fill.

Espy, in his closing statements, said he wished Cochran well, calling him a "thoughtful" and "efficient" senator.

I would hope to be the kind of senator that Sen. Cochran is," he said.

Updated on Nov. 21 at 6:51 a.m.