Mike Espy’s Senate race in Mississippi is getting a fresh look from Democrats, including Barack Obama. Here’s why

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Mike Espy vented frustration a few weeks ago that national Democrats appeared to be writing off his chances of toppling Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in deeply red Mississippi.

“They don’t think a Black man in Mississippi can win,” the former agriculture secretary wrote on Twitter

They’re not ignoring Espy now.

About 130,000 new donors flooded the campaign with cash since the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Espy said. He raised five times more than Hyde-Smith in a recent three-month stretch, federal filings show.

Since Oct. 1 alone, Espy has raked in at least $3.8 million as party luminaries such as Sen. Cory Booker and Stacey Abrams helped him raise money. Former President Barack Obama cut a radio ad for him.

“(Mississippi is) finally getting some attention from the DNC, from other national Democrats, from influencers,” said Jarrius Adams, an Espy supporter who is president of Young Democrats of Mississippi.

Voting rights activist and former Georgia politician Stacey Abrams joins a drive-in style campaign rally via live stream in support of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mike Espy. Espy faces incumbent Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in the election Tues, Nov. 3, 2020.

Some pollsters and political operatives have given the Espy vs. Hyde-Smith race a second look in light of the influx of cash and tightening poll numbers.

Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, for instance, rated the contest “safe Republican” in August but shifted it to “likely Republican” in October.

The Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump organization started by disaffected Republicans, announced this month it is jumping in the race to help Espy.

Will there be a debate? Espy wants a debate. Hyde-Smith doesn’t. Will MS voters get to see the candidates before Nov. 3?

The group has gained prominence for its scorching attack ads, which are known to call out the character of Trump’s GOP loyalists. Among the group’s consultants is longtime Republican strategist Stuart Stevens, a Mississippi native who helmed Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and donated to Espy’s campaign this year.

Yet if Espy were to win, it would be an upset of historic proportions. While some southern states such as Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia have turned bluer, Mississippi has been rock-solid Republican for decades. President Donald Trump carried it by 18 points in 2016 and the GOP controls the state legislature.

“It’s going to be very hard to Espy to win in part because it’s a numbers game Democrats find themselves on the wrong side of,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

Mississippi democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mike Espy addresses the crowd during a drive-in style campaign rally at New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020. Espy faces incumbent Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in the election Tues, Nov. 3, 2020.

Espy said the campaign has a secret weapon: a new data set allowing his campaign to locate 100,000 Black voters who supported former President Barack Obama in 2008 but have never shown up at the polls since then.

“We have their emails, we have their cellphone numbers, we know their addresses,” Espy told reporters recently. “So when I say we’re building the most powerful get-out-the-vote operation, I mean that. Today we’ve got 40 or 50 people knocking on doors with the Espy mask, with gloves, with PPE and digital devices. And we know where to go.” 

The rematch between Espy and 61-year-old Hyde-Smith, a loyal Trump backer, has hardly registered nationally amid numerous competitive races that could hand Democrats control of the Senate.

Kondik said the shift in the rating of the race to “likely Republican” was made “out of an abundance of caution.” He pointed to what many Democratic state party leaders spotlight: Espy’s strong race against Hyde-Smith in a 2018 special election.

The Democratic candidate forced a runoff. In their head-to-head matchup, Espy lost to Hyde-Smith by 7% – a closer margin than many had expected. It marked the best showing for Democrats since the 1988 Mississippi Senate race, when Republican Trent Lott beat Democrat Wayne Dowdy by roughly the same gap.

Optimistic state party officials point to another historically strong Democratic candidate, Jim Hood, losing last year’s governor election by a slightly smaller margin to Tate Reeves as another sign the state could be turning more competitive.

Kondik said Mississippi remains an inelastic state in most national observer’s minds for 2020. Black residents make up 38% of Mississippi’s population – the highest of any state. While African American voters in the state overwhelmingly back Democrats, white voters there support Republican candidates with a similar intensity.

To win, Espy needs to maximize turnout among Black voters while attracting moderate white voters. But while the closely watched battlegrounds of the 2020 election such as Michigan and Pennsylvania have a lot of swing voters, Mississippi has far fewer.

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“I think it’s the racial polarization of the state,” he said. “Espy is a credible candidate who has had success in the past, although it was a long time ago. And Hyde-Smith had some problems in 2018, and may not win every single Trump voter either, but I think she’s going to be in decent shape.”

But Austin Barbour, a national GOP operative who lives in Mississippi, said it would be a mistake to overlook the race given Espy’s recent fundraising haul.

“It was a single-digit race last time, and I think we’re probably in a similar situation,” Barbour said.

Rematch of bitter 2018 race

Hyde-Smith and Espy faced off in 2018 over a seat that opened up after the late Sen. Thad Cochran, a Republican, stepped down due to health issues. Hyde-Smith became the first woman elected to represent the state in Congress. 

If Espy wins, he would be Mississippi’s first Black U.S. Senator since Reconstruction. In 1986, he defeated a Republican in a House race, becoming the state’s first African American member of Congress since Reconstruction and was later tapped by President Bill Clinton to become Agriculture Secretary.

Espy sees parallels with that first 1986 congressional race and now, noting he beat an incumbent in a district that wasn’t majority Black by reaching out to people with a wide range of political views. Like back then, he said, now he’s attempting to “build the broadest, deepest, widest coalition of voters in the history of our state.” 

The 2018 race got ugly. In a remark that evoked Mississippi’s brutal history of racism and lynchings, Hyde-Smith joked at one campaign event that she’d be willing to attend a “public hanging.” At another event, she appeared to make light of voter suppression, saying it would be a “great idea” to make it harder for “liberal folks” to vote.

Espy was scrutinized for a questionable lobbying contract with an African despot. Attacks are flying this year as well, with Espy most recently calling out Hyde-Smith’s “laziness and disrespect in her campaign attitude,” including her refusal to debate.  

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“I guess when people say they haven’t seen me much, they don’t realize I’m in Washington, D.C. all week long,” Hyde-Smith shot back in an interview last week, adding “the people elected me to go up and represent them.” She said debates are only “something that losing candidates and reporters care about.” 

Espy seeks to gain ground by centering the campaign on health care, including saving rural hospitals, defending the Affordable Care Act and pushing Mississippi to expand Medicaid coverage to low-income adults. He’s held a mix of Zoom gatherings and socially distanced outdoor rallies while releasing a series of television ads attacking Hyde-Smith’s record and controversial comments.

“I think we are beginning to peak at the right time,” he said.

Tightening 

A cattle rancher and former state agriculture commissioner, Hyde-Smith has focused less on policy and more on her loyalty to Trump and traditional conservative values. She has defined the race as “the conservative versus someone who is quite liberal,” even though Espy has a long record as a moderate and opposes proposals such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. 

In this Nov. 26, 2018 photo, Republican interim senator Cindy Hyde-Smith and President Donald Trump wave during a rally in Biloxi, Miss.

Polls showing at least an eight-point cushion for Hyde-Smith had tightened by late August, with one reporting a five-point gap and another showing a dead heat. One pollster noted in August that Espy was “in a very competitive position,” adding Hyde-Smith is a surprisingly polarizing figure among many voters in the Republican state. 

Espy had for years been out of public view and needed to reintroduce himself to voters in 2018. Two years later, he appears to have broad name recognition in the state, said Marvin King, a University of Mississippi political science professor. 

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Add to that a flush campaign account and heavy Democratic voter turnout during a presidential election year, the professor said, and Espy should at least make the result closer this time. He said some Republican voters may be less motivated to turn out than in 2016, possibly assuming Trump will easily win the state. 

“The fact that we’re even talking about this (race) does say something about Espy, but also about how Cindy Hyde-Smith’s time in office doesn’t capture the imagination of the average voter,” King said. 

After struggling for years, Mississippi Democrats hit rock bottom in 2019 as they lost ground across the board. Gubernatorial candidate Hood – among the state party’s strongest candidates in decades – came up short. Many blamed a state Democratic party that appeared in disarray. 

Hyde-Smith unworried about ‘noise’

But experts do see a longshot path to victory for Espy if he can turn draw record-breaking Black turnout and make enough headway in the affluent suburbs around Jackson and south of Memphis, long dominated by Republicans.  

“When you have the highest Black voters per capita, you have the lowest white threshold that you need to win,” Espy said. “I’ve been saying this for years and years, but now (national Democrats are) starting to see it.”  

Espy will need to pull in especially big margins from his old congressional district, which covers the Mississippi Delta and parts of Jackson, said Nathan Shrader, a Millsaps College political science professor. That district is now represented by the state’s only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Bennie Thompson. Shrader noted Thompson does not have a strong challenger this year, but has been campaigning “like he’s 20 points behind” to help boost Espy.

“Thompson needs to be given his due on this, that he’s out there trying to pull together the biggest Democratic vote he can out of the 2nd district,” Shrader said. 

Espy will also need to keep the race closer than before in several of the state’s suburbs. Hood last year won in upscale Madison County, north of Jackson, the first time a Democrat has won there in decades. Espy works as the county’s attorney. 

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Madison is a place where help from outside groups could play a significant role as Trump struggles to keep suburban voters in the GOP fold.

“Mike Espy wins the ‘I don’t want to be embarrassed by a lunatic’” demographic, said Lincoln Project co-founder Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist, on the Daily Beast’s “The New Abnormal” political podcast.

But in Rankin County, another Jackson suburb with a larger population than Madison, Espy’s campaign has struggled to make inroads.

Irl Dean Rhodes, a longtime GOP power broker in the county, said while residents have taken note of Hyde-Smith’s minimal campaigning, he still expects overwhelming GOP support for both her and Trump. 

Another crucial county is DeSoto, which includes bedroom communities south of Memphis, a place Hyde-Smith won by about 7,000 votes two years ago. State Rep. Hester Jackson McCray, a freshman Democrat from DeSoto, said voters are more familiar with Espy there now, and he “has a pretty good crew that’s going door to door.” 

“It’s going to be very competitive,” she said. “I think he has a shot this time.”

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If Hyde-Smith is worried about Espy’s momentum, she gave no indication of that in a phone interview with the USA TODAY Network that was squeezed in between a Farm Bureau meeting and an event with a veteran’s group.

“There’s a lot of noise out there,” she said, adding that she plans to do enough campaigning to win her first full term. She was quick to bring up her support for U.S. Supreme Court justice nominee Amy Coney Barrett, expressing confidence that Barrett’s confirmation will be done before Election Day. 

And Hyde-Smith hasn’t forgotten the man who pushed her to victory two years ago by holding three rallies in Mississippi. One of her latest television ads hits on conservative talking points such as low taxes and “illegal aliens.” In the final seconds, it lingers on a selfie of Hyde-Smith alongside a grinning Trump.

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