Mississippi Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith joked about going "front row" to a "public hanging" in a video posted to Twitter on Sunday morning, prompting her African-American opponent to call her comment "reprehensible."
"If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row," the senator is heard saying in the video.
Hyde-Smith faces former Democratic Rep. Mike Espy in a runoff election on November 27 for the Mississippi Senate seat. The runoff election was triggered when neither she nor Espy received more than 50% of the vote total on November 6.
Hyde-Smith was appointed in April to fill the seat vacated by longtime Republican Sen. Thad Cochran, who stepped down due to health reasons. She became the first female senator to represent the state.
Espy said on CNN's "New Day" Monday morning that the comments were "disappointing" and reflected poorly on the state.
"They are hurtful to millions of Mississippians who are people of goodwill," Espy said. "And they're harmful because they tend to reinforce the stereotypes that have held back our state for so long and that have cost us jobs and harmed our economy."
In the video, Hyde-Smith appeared to be speaking during a campaign event about the support of a Mississippi rancher.
The line drew applause and laughter from the crowd. The short video clip was met with immediate backlash online and had more than 2 million page views as of late Sunday night.
Hyde-Smith issued a statement on Sunday after the video posted, saying, "In a comment on Nov. 2, I referred to accepting an invitation to a speaking engagement. In referencing the one who invited me, I used an exaggerated expression of regard, and any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous."
In a statement posted to Twitter on Sunday, Espy, who would become the first black senator to represent Mississippi since the Reconstruction era if he wins, called the comments "reprehensible."
He wrote, "They have no place in our political discourse, in Mississippi, or our country. We need leaders, not dividers, and her words show that she lacks the understanding and judgment to represent the people of our state."
In his CNN interview Monday morning, he said Hyde-Smith's response was "tone deaf," but when asked if the remark itself was racist or had racial connotations, Espy demurred and instead presented himself as a unifying candidate.
"My campaign is the campaign that tries to reach across the racial chasm, reach across the party chasm and bring us together," Espy said.
Mississippi had the highest number of lynchings in the nation between 1882 and 1968, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"Hyde-Smith's decision to joke about 'hanging' when the history of African Americans is marred by countless incidents of this barbarous act, is sick," NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in a statement Sunday, according to The Washington Post. "Any politician seeking to serve as a national voice of the people of Mississippi should know better."