Why Mike Espy Can Win the “Battleground” State of Mississippi

5 mins read

On November 27, 2018, Mike Espy was defeated by Cindy Hyde-Smith in a special election for the Senate in Mississippi. While it was a decisive defeat with Cindy Hyde-Smith up by eight points, the election was still unprecedented. Espy received 46% of the vote and came closer to winning a Mississippi Senate race than any Democrat has in more than 30 years. Just three days after his loss, Espy registered to take on Cindy Hyde-Smith again this November.

Running as a Black candidate is always challenging, but in Mississippi it is especially daunting. 

Mississippi holds a unique place in Black history. On the positive side, only ten Black Americans have ever become U.S. senators, and two of them hail from Mississippi. The first Black person elected to the federal government, Hiram Revels, was elected by Mississippians.

Mississippi’s negative aspects are readily apparent, particularly its long history of Jim Crow, segregation, and voter suppression. Emmett Till, who has become a symbol of the civil rights movement, was lynched while visiting Mississippi. Until this year, the state bore the Confederate symbol on its flag.

Unfortunately, the Republican candidate has chosen to embrace the dark aspects of Mississippi’s history. In a state known for lynchings, Hyde-Smith is on the record saying she would attend a public hanging and sit in the front row if invited. In 2014, she visited a Confederate museum and posed wearing a rebel soldier’s hat while holding a gun, then posted the photo on social media stating, “Mississippi history at its best!”

Espy is from a heritage of proud individuals who were freed from slavery and went on to create change in their communities. Espy’s great-grandfather was a slave, but his grandfather started a local newspaper and founded the first hospital for African Americans in Mississippi. 

Espy himself was the first Black person elected to Congress in Mississippi since the end of Reconstruction. He easily won four consecutive elections in the 1990’s and went on to serve as Secretary of Agriculture under President Bill Clinton. 

By appealing to constituents who cling to Mississippi’s negative past, Hyde would seem to have a built-in advantage. Furthermore, her fundraisers have been outraising Espy by a rate of two-to-one. To make matters worse, she has been leading Espy by almost five points in the polls. Still, Espy has a clear yet tough path forward.

The key to an Espy victory in this race is reactivating Obama supporters in MIssissippi. While President Barack Obama did not win Mississippi in 2008, he made impressive inroads with Black voters. “The goal of our campaign is to build the largest, widest, deepest, most robust get out the vote system in Mississippi’s history,” Espy said in an interview from August 5. “We’ve identified 100,000 Black voters. They have not voted for anyone since Obama in 2008.” Espy lost by 8%, but that was merely 60,000 votes. If Espy can get a fraction of the folks who voted for Obama in 2008 but have since failed to return to the polls, he can win. “We are a battleground state,” he exclaimed “because we have the numbers to win.”

Another critical factor is making sure everyone gets out to vote. While Mississippi does not allow mail-in or early voting, they do allow voters to visit the Circuit Clerk between October 24 and October 31 to cast an in-person, absentee ballot. This type of early voting can help Espy bank votes before Election Day. 

Espy can rise to the challenge and win this race. If his voters would simply exercise their right to vote he could be the next senator for the state of Mississippi. But in order to do that, they need to hear the right message. “I don’t doubt that [Hyde-Smith] loves Mississippi …” Espy said. “But she loves the Mississippi of old. She loves the Mississippi of the past. I love the Mississippi of the future, that is the difference.”

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