Mike Espy Ran As a Liberal and Came Closer to Winning Than Any Mississippi Dem Since 1982

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mike Espy celebrated as he headed to a runoff in Mississippi's U.S. Senate special election on Nov. 6, 2018. He lost the Nov. 27 runoff, but came closer to winning a U.S. Senate seat than any Mississippi Democrat since 1982. Photo by Ashton Pittman.

Though Democrat Mike Espy lost his bid to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in Tuesday’s runoff, he did so while coming closest to winning a U.S. Senate seat of any Democrat in Mississippi since 1982.

Espy even managed to flip nine counties blue that had gone red in 2014—all while running on a decidedly liberal platform, as noted in the Jackson Free Press:

Espy bucked the assumption that a Democrat needs to run as a moderate to win in Mississippi, running as a liberal who embraced the Affordable Care Act and its pre-existing conditions protections, affirmed women’s reproductive autonomy, advocated for gun ownership reforms like universal background checks, and supported additional civil-rights protections for LGBT people.

While running as a liberal rather than a “conservative-lite” Democrat, Espy improved markedly over Democrat Travis Childers, who ran for the seat the last time it was up in 2014:

Hyde-Smith beat Espy 53.9 to 46.1—a 7.8-point margin . . . Espy’s performance is a marked improvement over that of the last Democrat to run for the seat. In 2014, Democrat Travis Childers lost to then-incumbent Republican Thad Cochran by 22 points after drawing less than 38 percent of the vote.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick joined Mike Espy to endorse him in his race for U.S. Senate and discuss growing small businesses in Hattiesburg, Miss., on Sept. 22, 2018. Photo by Ashton Pittman.

In the 2014 race, Childers ran as a conservative Democrat, hoping to peel off Tea Party voters who were angry at Cochran after he narrowly beat back a primary challenge from his right by insurgent GOP state Sen. Chris McDaniel.

Some of the most impressive shifts came in blue counties where Espy drove up the numbers:

Tuesday’s results suggest Espy’s decision to focus on generating enthusiasm among the Democratic base may have been a key part of narrowing the gap since 2014. In reliably Democratic Hinds County, for example, Espy won 77 percent of the vote, putting him ahead by 54 points. Four years earlier, Childers won Hinds by 16 points.

Now, Espy appears poised to challenge Hyde-Smith for a rematch in 2020; he filed for the race with the FEC on Friday—which also happened to be his 65th birthday. Former Espy Communications Director Danny Blanton told the Jackson Free Press that Espy’s relatively impressive showing was something he would be able to build on during the next two years if he does run:

“You’ve got to remember that when we started this campaign in April, we had eight months to do what normally people have two years to do,” Blanton said. “So if this is going to be done again, he’s going to give himself time to do it the right way and not be rushed.”

Espy would be in a strong position to build on the silver-lining successes that were evident on election night, Blanton said. “I think we can have stronger field operation because we’ll have more time to build on and expand our base, which will give us a better shot,” he said.

A lot could change between now and Nov. 3, 2020; Espy would have to win a Democratic primary next time, and President Trump’s fate, now in the hands of Robert Mueller, could shape the outcome of 2020 for Democrats in House and Senate races nationwide.