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

JACKSON, Miss—The U.S. Senate runoff between Mike Espy and Cindy Hyde-Smith got most of the national attention, but that race may not have been the most important one in Mississippi this election cycle. That’s why it’s important to not let disappointment about Espy’s failed bid to become one of the rare black candidates to win a Senate race in the Deep South since Reconstruction make us forget to celebrate this: though one black man may have lost, several black women won big.

That’s why for the first time in Hinds County history, three circuit judges will be black women. Senior Circuit Judge Tomie Green won reelection. Faye Peterson, a former Hinds County District attorney, defeated incumbent Joseph Sclafani of Clinton in the District 4 Circuit judge race. State Rep. Adrienne Wooten unseated incumbent Joseph Sclafani in District 1. Circuit Judge Winston Kidd, a black man, is going back to the bench after being unopposed in the November 6 race.

The Mississippi capital, Jackson, is located in Hinds County.

That is a tremendous accomplishment in a state that has the highest percentage of black people in the nation, though that political power has consistently been stunted by white Mississippians who thwart the political aspirations of black people.

Hyde-Smith won the Senate seat she had been appointed to by Gov. Phil Bryant in March. Had Espy taken the seat, he would not have changed the balance of power in the Senate, though it would have struck a political blow against President Donald Trump and the widely-held belief that Mississippi is too red to elect even most moderate Democrats. But to dwell solely on Espy’s defeat undermines the progress his run made. Espy lost by 8 points. To put that in perspective: Trump won the state by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016. Given that national Democrats devoted few resources to this race—and Mississippi in general—what Espy was able to pull off was nothing short of spectacular.

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Espy’s strong showing happened because of the local activism of black female activists. As I wrote recently, organizations such as Black Voters Matter were here for months, going door-to-door, pleading with people to vote. They did that even though many in the national media, and elsewhere, pay little attention to Mississippi because they assume the GOP will hold on to power forever.

How much better would Espy and other Democratic candidates in the state have fared had national Democrats devoted the same resources and time here as they did in Florida and Georgia? Georgia is on the verge of becoming a majority people of color state, while Florida is a legitimate toss up nationally, so I am not suggesting Mississippi is as winnable as those states. But Mississippi is winnable if national Democrats want it enough. The Intercept reports that the Republican Party had invested $8 million dollars in the state as of late October, compared to $2 million by Democrats. U.S. Congressman Bennie Thompson urged them to invest in the state in May, but his pleas fell on deaf ears.

Black groups in the state aren’t waiting for America to save Mississippi. They are doing that work themselves. I spoke with dozens of black people in the Delta and other parts of Mississippi who all expressed hope Espy could win. Few believed he would make it to the runoff. But it wasn’t because they didn’t have faith in him. They had little faith in white people. Given that Mississippi regularly competes for the top spot in the poorest states in the union rankings, one would think that white residents, who also suffer extreme poverty, would be willing to give Democrats a shot.

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But, largely, that has not been the case. During my time in the state at three polling stations in Jackson, the white people who agreed to speak with me (most declined) and supported Trump did not have a problem with Hyde-Smith’s racist comments, which alluded to the bygone era of lynchings in a state that was ground zero for the lynching of black people. In fact, they did not say her name at all.

“I vote for Trump,” several of them told me.

When I reminded them Trump was not on the ballot, a woman told me she chose Hyde-Smith because she knew Hyde-Smith would support Trump, and that was all that mattered to her. Let’s be frank. Mississippians like that white voter aren’t going away anytime soon.

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Still, there is hope, because not all white residents here share those views. It is apparent that Hyde-Smith’s comments turned many white Mississippians off—even if that meant some of them stayed home and didn’t vote at all. Her words forced major corporations who donated to her campaign to ask for their money back. Her racism wasn’t enough to unseat her. But it scared Trump and other Republicans enough to convince the president to campaign with her in Biloxi and Tupelo before the runoff.

No doubt Espy’s run was an uphill battle, but well worth the effort. As soon as national Democrats begin viewing the South as a viable battleground and realize that black people and the poor are their base, Republicans in Mississippi will no longer believe they can win with racists who make jokes about wanting a front seat at public lynchings.