How U.S. Senate Candidate Mike Espy Plans to Win in Mississippi

Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Mike Espy speaks to reporters after voting at a polling place at Highland Colony Baptist Church, November 27, 2018 in Ridgeland, Mississippi.
Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Mike Espy speaks to reporters after voting at a polling place at Highland Colony Baptist Church, November 27, 2018 in Ridgeland, Mississippi.
Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images (Getty Images)

Mike Espy is ready to win this time.

That’s the main thing he wants you to know about why his 2020 U.S. Senate race out of Mississippi will be different from his last go-around in 2018. He said that when he threw his hat into the special election that year to replace outgoing-Senator Thad Cochran, he barely had a staff and any real strategy for winning a national race during a midterm year. Espy, 66, also wants to remind you that, even though he lost to known racist Cindy-Hyde Smith, who proudly ran as a modern-day Dixiecrat, he did pretty well.

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“We had from basically April to November to begin a campaign, to raise it up, to find staff, to find money, to engage the voters and I ran out of time, frankly. That was the main problem,” Espy said from his campaign office in Mississippi during a Zoom video conference. “The difference between then and now is that, even though we lost in 2018, we got 47 percent of the vote, we never stopped [campaigning]. I actually announced that I was going to run for another try literally in December of that same year.”

Across the South, Black candidates like Espy have challenged the notion that their candidacies for statewide and national offices are out of reach, that their states are too tethered to the legacy of Dixie to be viable. Stacey Abrams proved that wasn’t true in Georgia by nearly defeating an opponent who oversaw rampant voter suppression tactics while serving as secretary of state. In Florida, Andrew Gillum came within less than half a percentage point of defeating Ron DeSantis by running arguably the Blackest campaign of 2018 and in a state where millions of Black folks were disenfranchised from voting (and still are fighting for that right to this very day).

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Charles Booker, in Kentucky, nearly won his primary against Amy McGrath, who the Democratic establishment supported for more than two years. Again, Booker was his natural Black self, embracing defunding the police policies and taking on very far-left positions. Kentucky is not Mississippi, but C.J. Lawrence, who is based in Jackson and is very connected to activists and elected officials in the state, says “I think Trump’s vitriol bodes well for Mile Espy.”

Lawrence, the CEO of Black With No Chaser news site, said. “I think we saw it in races like Charles Booker’s race in Kentucky and the way he performed and I think he performed well enough to win and if he continues to campaign this time around like Espy against Cindy Hyde-Smith, he can beat Rand Paul in 2022. I think this is the new methodology,” which is to never stop campaigning when you come up just shy of victory or perform well with little institutional support or on short notice.

Espy easily won the March Democratic primary with more than 93 percent of the vote and winning all but one county. One of the factors working in Espy’s favor is that 37.8 percent of the state is made up of Black residents, the highest of any state. While a recent poll has him down by eight points, he has a commanding lead with Black voters over Hyde-Smith and that same poll shows support for the expansion of Medicaid by a margin 57 percent to 22 percent. Espy has been running on the pledge to expand the Affordable Care Act, a pathway he feels leads to greater access to healthcare than those proposed by more left-leaning politicians.

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“I don’t ascribe to Medicare For All,” he told me. “The people identify that with the Bernie Sanders campaign. I just want to make sure that we have the private system still involved. Honestly, because everybody I know likes their private physician. So I don’t want to jeopardize that. I just want to make sure that we expand medical services for everyone and not make it a single-source system. I sort of like the idea of competition to be honest with you. I want to compete for pharmaceuticals. I want to go into Canada and have the Canadian drug system to be able to compete for drugs here in the United States.”

Another difference between 2018 and now are the uprisings stemming from the killings of Black people at the hands of police. Espy has been seen at Black Lives Matter rallies showing his support for protesters, something that Lawrence, the political analyst, says should work in Espy’s favor.

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“The only old guy was me with my son, and I think they’re going to come out and vote in November,” he said of a June protest he attended that drew 3000 people. “I saw voter registration kiosks. Every Black Lives Matter young person that spoke talked about, ‘We can march today but we’ve got to vote tomorrow.’ So, yes I’m concerned that Trump is on the ballot. He is who he is. I think he’s one of the worst presidents we’ve ever had in history, to be honest.”

Espy laid out his pathway to victory in November. He knows he can’t win with the Black vote alone, so he is going after white voters wherever they are. “People say, ‘Oh, Mississippi’s red, there’s nobody white’s going to vote for you.’ That is not true,” Espy said.” We’ve already seen it. In 2018, we got 19 percent of the white vote. In Mississippi. We need to get four more percent, we need to get somewhere around 22 percent of the white vote to win. So we get 35 percent black turnout and four more percent whites to vote for me, you’re looking at the next senator from the state of Mississippi.”

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To be sure, Trump is still heavily favored to win Mississippi and he is very popular in the state, but presidential years produce far more voters than midterm elections. And Espy may have several factors in his favor. The Mississippi flag, which included the Confederate emblem, has been taken down and will be replaced with a new one, something that Espy has long called for and may also play a decisive role with voters who want to see the state take a turn away from its Dixie legacy versus those voters who want Mississippi to remain as it is.

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A lot of Espy’s challenges may come from the very people who are charged with ensuring the integrity of voting across the state. Jones County election commissioner Gail Harrison Welch complained on Facebook that “Blacks” are having a lot of voter registration events and that “people in Mississippi have to get involved, too,” suggesting that Black voters are not people.

“My trust for the voting process in and of itself, that’s where the questions come in,” Lawrence said. “I don’t know if we can trust the people counting the votes.”

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Mississippi Today reports that the state is one of six states in the nation that have not taken steps to ensure voter safety amid COVID-19 and that it is also one of the few that do not allow no-excuse voting by mail or no excuse in-person early voting.

Espy is also running against a century of historical racism. The state’s convention from more than 100 years ago was held, in part, per the “words of one former state governor and US senator, ‘eliminate the n***er from politics,’” per Vox. Here is an excerpt from Vox on how that convention informs statewide elections to this day:

Mississippi held a constitutional convention more than a century ago to, in the words of one former state governor and US senator, “eliminate the n***er from politics.” One still-remaining vestige of that convention is the unusual way the state conducts its statewide elections.

For statewide positions other than US senator, Mississippi uses a system similar to the electoral college. It’s not enough for a candidate to simply win the statewide popular vote. Rather, they must win both a majority of the popular vote and win a majority of the state’s 122 state House districts. If no candidate clears both of these hurdles, the House chooses the winner from the top two candidates.

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As Vox reports, it doesn’t impact Espy’s race, but it does tell you what type of history underpins his run to unseat Hyde-Smith, a Confederate-loving Republican who in 2018 “joked” about suppressing the vote of “liberal folks” and attending a public lynching.

“She’s a throwback to the old Mississippi,” Espy said. “I believe and I know that I’m Mississippi of change, Mississippi of promise. Throughout my whole career, when I ran for a congressional seat in 1986 to right now when I’m running for U.S. senator in 2020, I’ve tried to be the candidate of change. Mississippi has so much promise it has never met. What I’ve been trying to do, when I was a 30-year-old congressman, and now a 66-year-old candidate for U.S. Senate is to be that change agent. When you look at the socio-economic index, Mississippi is always near the bottom. We’re near the bottom in healthcare outcomes, we’re near the bottom in educational attainment, we’re near the bottom in per capita income, and those are all three killers of potential.”

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Arekia Bennett, executive director of Mississippi Votes, told The Root that the lack of infrastructure in the state Democratic Party, as well as the implications that COVID-19 will have on black voters, might undermine turnout. But she is confident that Espy’s team is primed to overcome these obstacles.

“It seems like the Espy campaign is working to make sure folks are informed of the new policies and options that seek to expand access to voters in the November elections. The party generally needs to be more resourceful to Mississippi. On the other side, as my colleague Jarrius Adams would put it, ‘It’s an interesting time to be a Black person running for office right now.’ There’s an opportunity to appeal to folks in creative ways that we haven’t thought about before this healthcare crisis, and the Espy team is being very clear, tactical and strategic about their message and their approach to reaching Mississippians.”

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Espy also comes to this 2020 U.S. Senate race with an impeccable resume. In 1986, he became the first Black person from Mississippi to serve in Congress since Reconstruction and served in the House until 1993, when then-President Bill Clinton appointed him as Agricultural Secretary, the first and only Black person to hold that post. One of his most impressive legislative achievements as a congressman was a bill he sponsored called the Lower Mississippi Delta Development Act, which focused on job creation, business development programs and infrastructure needs. It would eventually pass and was signed into law by Ronald Reagan.

A lawyer by training and a trade expert in his post-political career, Espy says he will use his expertise in development in Africa to challenge China’s growing influence on the continent.

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“Since I left the secretary of agriculture’s office I’ve been in almost every African country for one reason or another,” he said. “Either to speak or to gift or trade and everywhere I go there’s some sort of Chinese influence. They’ve come in and they’ve engaged the African leadership of that country to build a bridge, or to build a port, or to get the trade treaty. What they’re doing is creating networks all over the world, whereas we’ve abandoned the world and isolated ourselves away from all these treaties. They’ve been building their presence in the world, where when it comes time to when we cause a gridlock, when countries identify with the U.S, identify with China, I think that we’ve been losing.”

As far as winning the Senate race, Espy wants to strengthen the weaker links in his state, what he calls “those in the bottom third” of quality of life factors: African Americans.

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“I’m not against the wealthy, but I am for the poor,” he said. “That’s what I’ve always done because if you help them and build them, undergird them, inspire them, give them resources. What did James Brown say? ‘I don’t want nobody to give me nothing, just open up the door and I’ll get it myself.’”

Espy makes clear that everyone in Mississippi will see their life improve under his time as a senator, but made clear who he feels his candidacy will help the most.

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“I want to provide capacity for them to lift themselves up,” Espy said, “so they can enter the mainstream of society, and most of them are going to be African American.”

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root. He is currently writing a book proposal that analyzes US-Russia relations from a black perspective.

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