AT&T, Leidos and Walmart ask GOP Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith for their campaign donation back because of furor over 'hanging' comments

  • AT&T, Leidos and Walmart asked Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi on Tuesday to return their campaign donations after getting criticized for their support of the lawmaker, who had make a joke about attending a hypothetical "public hanging."
  • Hyde-Smith who is headed for a runoff election against Democratic challenger Mike Espy on Nov. 27.
  • On Nov. 2, Hyde-Smith, referring to a local rancher standing next to her, said that if he "invited me to a public hanging I'd be on the front row."
Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., attends her swearing-in ceremony in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber after being sworn in on the Senate floor on April 9, 2018. 
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call Group | Getty Images
Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., attends her swearing-in ceremony in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber after being sworn in on the Senate floor on April 9, 2018. 

AT&T , Leidos and Walmart asked Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi on Tuesday to return their campaign donations after getting criticized for their support of the lawmaker, who had make a joke about attending a hypothetical "public hanging."

Five companies so far have asked Hyde-Smith for their campaign contributions back on the heels of the furor over her remark.

Meanwhile, private equity giant Blackstone Group declined to comment when CNBC asked if its CEO, Stephen Schwarzman, would seek the return of a $2,700 contribution he made to Hyde-Smith.

Walmart, in a tweeted reply to "Will and Grace" star Debra Messing on Tuesday morning, said it "completely" understood her concern about the donation to Hyde-Smith, who is headed for a runoff election against Democratic challenger Mike Espy, a former U.S. Agriculture secretary, on Nov. 27.

"Sen. Hyde-Smith's recent comments clearly do not reflect the values of our company and associates. As a result, we are withdrawing our support and requesting a refund of all campaign donations," Walmart said in the tweet.

Later Tuesday, when asked by CNBC about its own donation to Hyde-Smith, a spokesman for telecommunications behemoth AT&T said, "We are no longer supporting Senator Hyde-Smith and have requested a refund of our campaign contributions."

AT&T had contributed $2,000 to Hyde-Smith prior to November.

The scientific research company Leidos then told CNBC on Tuesday, "We have already requested a refund." Leidos had contributed $5,000 to Hyde-Smith.

"Remarks like those made by Senator Hyde-Smith are offensive and an affront to everything we stand for as a company. The money was sent before the remarks were public. If Leidos had been aware, we would not have made the contribution and are pursuing a refund of our contribution," the company said.

Hyde-Smith's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Also Tuesday, a Facebook post Hyde-Smith made in 2014 resurfaced, showing her smilingly posing wearing a Confederate cap and holding a rifle. Hyde-Smith, who took the photo while visiting the home of Confederate States of America president Jefferson Davis, wrote, "Mississippi history at its best!" in a caption accompanying the image.

In addition to AT&T, Leidos and Walmart, two other companies, Union Pacific and Boston Scientific, had already asked for their money back Monday.

All five companies acted after corporate contributions to the GOP incumbent were highlighted by the news site Popular Information, whose article about the donations was tweeted by Messing.

Federal election filings revealed that Walmart had contributed $2,000 to the campaign of Hyde-Smith.

That contribution reportedly was made Nov. 18 — around a week after the first reports that Hyde-Smith had talked about attending a hanging.

In June, Walmart had given Hyde-Smith's campaign an initial $1,000 donation.

Filings show that Blackstone's Schwarzman made his own $2,700 contribution to the senator on Nov. 14, days after exposure of her "hanging" comment. However, it is not clear if in fact that was the date the contribution was actually made, or merely reported.

On Nov. 2, Hyde-Smith, while attending a campaign stop in Tupelo, referred to a local rancher standing next to her, and said that if he "invited me to a public hanging I'd be on the front row."

That comment sparked a firestorm of criticism after it became widely known.

Mississippi has a history of lynching African-Americans and Hyde-Smith's opponent, Espy, is black.

Espy's spokesman, Danny Blanton, said, "Cindy Hyde-Smith's comments have embarrassed Mississippi, and shown why she can't be trusted to work with the businesses Mississippi needs to grow good paying jobs."

"We're confident that voters will follow Walmart's lead and dump Cindy Hyde-Smith before she has the power to do real damage to our economy," Blanton said.

President Donald Trump, speaking to reporters Tuesday, said, "Cindy Hyde-Smith is a tremendous woman who truly loves the people of Mississippi and our country."

"She made a statement which I know she feels very badly about it."

Hyde-Smith's tendency to put her foot in her mouth has made the Senate race a competitive one despite Mississippi's status as an otherwise solidly dependable Republican-voting state.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that a private Republican poll had found that Hyde-Smith holds just a 5-percentage point lead over Espy, a former U.S. Agriculture Secretary under President Bill Clinton and three-term congressman from Mississippi's 2nd Congressional district.

Before her "hanging" comment, Hyde-Smith had received donations of $1,000 or more from big corporate backers including Amazon, Amgen, Google, Honeywell, Leidos, Lockheed Martin, Nucor and Tyson Foods.

Lockheed spokeswoman Maureen Schumann declined to comment on CNBC's inquiry about whether the company plans to follow Walmart's lead and withdraw support from Hyde-Smith.

Also Monday, Hyde-Smith said that her campaign had returned a $2,700 donation from Peter Zieve, a businessman in Seattle, who was sued by the state of Washington in 2017 for refusing to hire Muslims at his aerospace company Electroimpact, and for expressing "hatred" of Muslims at work.

Zieve had made his donation several days after the video of her hanging comments came to light. Popular Information first reported Zieve's contribution last Thursday.

Last week, another video surfaced in which Hyde-Smith was heard saying it might be "a great idea" to make it more difficult for some people to vote.

"And then they remind me that there's a lot of liberal folks in those other schools who ... maybe we don't want to vote," Hyde-Smith said on the video, posted by the publisher of The Bayou Brief, a nonprofit news outlet in Louisiana.

"Maybe we want to make it just a little more difficult. And I think that's a great idea."

Her campaign said the senator "obviously" was "making a joke and clearly the video was selectively edited."

— Additional reporting by CNBC's Jacob Pramuk and Brian Schwartz