More than 13 months after Mike Espy drove Mississippi Democrats closer to a US Senate victory than any candidate since 1982, he officially filed to seek his party’s nomination to challenge Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith once again on January 9, 2019. This time, he is betting that a year of preparation and higher Democratic turnout in a presidential election year could help propel him to victory.
“We are going up against the all-powerful GOP machine as we take on Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith and her extreme agenda,” Espy, who served as US Secretary of Agriculture under former President Bill Clinton, wrote in an email to supporters late Saturday morning.
During her time in office, Hyde-Smith has aligned closely with Donald Trump, and introduced a number of bills that take extreme positions on issues like abortion. Last month, she introduced a bill designed to restrict the use of early-pregnancy medication abortions, bar the FDA from approving new medications, and to prevent such pills from being sold over the counter.
‘Our Current Senator Puts Party Over Country’
“Washington is a mess, and Senator Hyde-Smith has done little to truly help the Magnolia State,” wrote Espy, who has criticized her for her devotion to Trump and her pledge to protect him in his impeachment trial. “It feels like each day brings a new crisis that dominates the headlines but does nothing to create jobs or improve our communities. Too often, our current Senator puts party over country instead of doing what’s best for our state and even our national security.”
Days ago, Cindy Hyde-Smith and 38 other Republicans asked the US Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, freeing states to ban abortion altogether. During an interview with the Jackson Free Press in 2018, Espy said he is “personally pro-life,” but opposes efforts to take choice away from women.
Espy has spent a year laying the groundwork for his campaign strategy—a luxury he did not have in 2018 when US Senator Thad Cochran stepped down and a special election for the seat opened about half a year before the election.
Espy believes his yearlong preparation effort, which began shortly after his 2018 loss, will help him close the gap in November 2020.
Hyde-Smith Vulnerable in 2020, Poll Shows
Despite the short amount of time he had to prepare in 2018, Espy made the race competitive. Trump easily won the state in 2016, with a 17.8-point gap. In the November 2018 special election, though, Hyde-Smith beat Espy by just 7.8 points. That same month, Mississippi’s other Republican U.S. senator, Roger Wicker, beat his Democratic opponent in a 19-point rout.
Hyde-Smith struggled after creating a firestorm with an odd comment about “a public hanging” that many interpreted as a reference to Mississippi’s racist history of lynching African Americans (the fact that her opponent, Espy, would have been the first black man from Mississippi elected to the US Senate since the late 1800s did not help matters).
As Hyde-Smith’s popularity dipped among Republicans and Democrats alike, Trump took the unusual step of making three trips to Mississippi to support her in the final stretch of the election, including election eve rallies in Biloxi and Tupelo. He highlighted her support for Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the US Supreme Court; Espy opposed the pick as sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh began to dominate the headlines.
Since Hyde-Smith’s November 2018 victory, though, polls have shown she remains unpopular with most Mississippi voters. In March 2019, Millsaps College and Chism Strategies conducted a survey which found that only 40% of Mississippi voters said they leaned toward voting to re-elect her in 2020, while 46% were leaning toward opposing her. When Millsaps dug further, just 23% of Mississippi voters said they were definitely planning to vote for Hyde-Smith this year, while 31% said they definitely planned to vote for someone else.
Espy Looks to the Suburbs for an Electoral Path
In 2018, Espy markedly improved over past Democrats. He won the densely-populated Hinds County by 38 points, significantly outperforming 2014 Democratic US Senate candidate Travis Childers, who won Hinds by just 22 points. In the 2019 race for governor, Democratic nominee Jim Hood drastically improved over past Democratic margins, losing to Republican Tate Reeves by just 5.5 points; the Democratic nominees for Mississippi governor lost by more than 20 points in 2011 and 2015.
Data show that Democrats’ improved margins in the State are, at least in part, attributable to suburban shifts during the Trump era, in which previously GOP-leaning white voters have begun to shift blue.
That helped two Democratic women oust Republican Mississippi House representatives in the 2019 legislative elections: Shanda Yates, a white millennial whose district is mostly in Hinds County, and Hester Jackson-McCray, an African American woman in a district in the outlying Memphis suburbs of North Mississippi (the GOP lawmaker who lost her seat to Jackson-McCray, Ashley Henley, has asked the Republican-dominated House to overturn the results).
Espy worked behind the scenes to help both women, whom he gifted with data from his 2018 campaign that helped them target and turn out voters.
‘The Price for Education is Just Too Damn High’
Espy helped other Democrats across the state in 2019, too, including Brandon Rue, a University of Southern Mississippi college student who unsuccessfully ran for a Mississippi House seat in 2019 after spending the prior fall helping the Espy campaign by, among other things, mobilizing hundreds of college voters with his “march to the polls” events.
In his pitch to supporters on Saturday, Espy vowed to not “get bogged down in partisan politics” if elected and to “work with anyone on both sides of the aisle to do what’s right by the people.” He also previewed some of the issues he plans to run on, including one geared toward college students and graduates struggling with student loan debt.
“Mississippi has changed quite a bit in the last few years, friend. Still, too many people can’t find a decent job. Rural hospitals across our state are closing. And the price for education is just too damn high,” Espy wrote. “I’m running for US Senate to change that and move Mississippi forward.”
Follow Ashton Pittman on Twitter @ashtonpittman and on Instagram @ashtoninms. Send feedback to [email protected] and tips to [email protected]. Follow Deep South Voice on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @deepsouthvoice.
Mike Espy officially filed to run for US Senate on January 9, 2020. An earlier version of this story, which was published several days prior, suggested he had already filed to run.