Oleta Fitzgerald, Mike Espy’s campaign manager, was wiping away a tear and answering questions after it had become clear Tuesday night that Espy was going to lose his bid to become the first African American elected to the U.S. Senate from Mississippi when a young man walked up and gave her a hug.
She looked at him and said with a re-assuring smile, “It’s a new South.”
That was part of the dynamics at the Espy election watch party, held at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum where people were gathered hoping to see history being made.
History was made – as Espy’s Republican opponent Cindy Hyde-Smith – became the first woman from Mississippi elected to the U.S. Senate.
But that was of little solace to the people at the Civil Rights Museum Tuesday night.
What was of solace was that based on unofficial and incomplete returns it appears Espy will receive more than 46 percent of the vote – the most for a Democrat running statewide for national office in Mississippi since at least 1988. In the election to replace long-time Democratic Sen. John Stennis, former Democratic U.S. Rep. Wayne Dowdy garnered 46.1 percent against fellow U.S. House member Trent Lott.
In 2008, in another special election to fill a vacancy like the Espy/Hyde-Smith contest, former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove received 44.7 percent against Republican Roger Wicker, a former U.S. House member.
“The good news is that this is the best Democratic performance (in a race for national office) in 30 years by a man who has not been in public office for 25 years,” said Brad Chism, a senior strategist for the Espy campaign. Espy was elected to the U.S. House – the first for an African American in Mississippi in modern times, four times, starting in 1986 and later served as secretary of agriculture.
In addition, Chism said Espy, who had been out of politics for a quarter of a century, had to build a campaign organization in six months.
“That normally takes two years,” Chism said.
Espy won a handful of counties that a Democrat does not normally win. For instance, Espy won Warren, Lowndes and Chickasaw counties – all won by Donald Trump in 2016. And in Republican heavy DeSoto, a Memphis suburb, Espy performed 18 percent better than Clinton did in 2016. In Jackson’s suburb of Madison County, Espy performed 6 percent better than Clinton.
But in rural counties, particularly many northeast Mississippi counties where Trump visited Monday, Republican turnout more closely resembled 2016 levels.
After the first election Nov. 6 where neither candidate garnered a majority vote, Chism said he knew that Espy faced an uphill battle. The two Republican candidates in the race – Hyde-Smith and state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Tea Party favorite – garnered 16 percent more of the vote than did Espy and Tobey Bartee, a Gautier Democrat on Nov. 6. On Tuesday, Espy cut that margin in half.
“We knew we had a narrow path to victory,” said Chism. “…Being outspent two to one and having Air Force One making not one, but two stops in the state on the eve of the election are tough to overcome.”
Chism said what he did not know was whether some Republicans who voted for Hyde-Smith on Nov. 6 had “buyer’s remorse” and that her margin of victory came from McDaniel voters. He said the Hyde-Smith campaign used “dog whistles” that were “one step short of race baiting” in an effort to attract voters.
During the campaign, controversial comments where Hyde-Smith said she would be willing to sit on the front row of a public hanging and where she voiced support for suppressing liberal votes at some Mississippi universities came to light. She eventually apologized for the remarks and said she was joking in making them.
The Hyde-Smith campaign and others attacked Espy for legal issues he faced, but were acquitted of related to his time as secretary of agriculture, for his lobbying work and for his voting record.
Both candidates increased their vote totals from Nov. 6 – Hyde-Smith by about 100,000 votes and Espy by about 50,000.
“This election was a wake up call for both parties,” said Bobby Moak, chair of the state Democratic Party.
While Espy supporters could take solace in a strong showing, in the end they loss.
In reality, Jim Griffith, who owns a financial services business in Jackson and who was at the watch party as an Espy supporter, admitted, “I really thought it would turn out the way it did,” conceding that the Republican lock on the state is still just too strong.
“We had some things that I don’t think represent the state,” he said. “Whatever the intent of what was said, I don’t think it was representative of the state.”
But Machelle Kyles of Bolton said she had a difficult time getting past the comments
“Anytime an elected official, no an appointed official, says those things, that is personal,” she said.
Espy left on a high note Tuesday night.
“Make no mistake – tonight is the beginning, not the end,” said Espy. “When this many people show up, stand up and speak up, it is not a loss. It is a movement.
“And we are not going to stop moving our state forward just because of one election. I look forward to finding new ways to do just that.”
Espy, who turns 65 on Friday, said he hopes young people would be inspired by the effort of his campaign to enter politics.