Lining the walls of Mike Espy’s Jackson law office are photos, memorabilia and documents detailing his life in public service as the state’s first African American U.S. House member since the 1800s and as one of Mississippi’s few U.S. cabinet secretaries.
But the item he saves for last to talk about is a photo of his grandfather – Thomas Jefferson Huddleston – the son of slaves who went on to launch an African American newspaper with a circulation of more than 100,000, opened an insurance company, built more than 30 funeral homes and established the first African American Hospital in the state – the Afro-American Hospital of Yazoo City.
“He is my political idol,” said Espy with only a hint of the hoarse voice that became so familiar during his unsuccessful 2018 run for the United States Senate against Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith. “Even though I am running for Senate and some people talk about how hard that is, it is not hard compared to what he did when he did it.”
That is right – Espy is running for the U.S. Senate again in 2020 against Hyde-Smith. The Yazoo City native is releasing a sleek video via email and social media announcing his intent to run again in 2020.
Of the 2018 session, Espy, 65, said, “The millennials did not know me. It was clear…What we try to do in the video is connect me to my past and my legacy.”
On the surface Espy’s path to victory seems remote. Espy’s announcement comes only a week after a disappointing – arguably disastrous – day for Mississippi Democrats as Attorney General Jim Hood lost his bid for governor to Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. In total, Republicans captured all eight statewide offices last Tuesday and built on its large majorities in the state Legislature. Despite those losses, Espy, who campaigned for Hood and other Democrats, believes he has a path to victory.
That path starts with building on what happened in 2018. In that special election called after veteran U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran resigned earlier in the year for health reasons, Espy and Hyde-Smith advanced to the runoff the Tuesday following Thanksgiving after neither candidate received a majority in the first election. In the runoff, Espy received 46.4 percent of the vote against Hyde-Smith, who had been appointed to the post in the interim by Gov Phil Bryant earlier in 2018.
Despite what seems to be a growing Republican momentum in the state, Espy believes if he can correct some of the mistakes he made in 2018 he can succeed in 2020.
His strategy is centered around:
- Starting earlier to introduce himself to young voters who might not be familiar with him since before last year he had not run a political campaign since 1992
- Raising money equivalent to what he did in 2018 – $7.2 million – but not placing all the money on advertising, instead focusing on developing a field operation to get out Democratic voters. Espy said the money came in so late in 2018 that he did not have time to build that operation to get potential Democratic voters to the polls. “We will use the money earlier to have an unprecedented field operation,” he said.
- Stressing that he is a Democrat who believes in expanding health care, covering pre-existing health conditions and growing the economy
He said there are members of his party he disagrees with on such issues as gun control, immigration and Medicare for all.
“I am not for open borders,” he said. “I am for legal immigration. I will be an independent voice in the Senate – whatever is best for Mississippi.”
Still, he does not run from his party. Espy said he has been following the issues surrounding the impeachment of President Donald Trump and said “I am concerned “about possible abuse of power from the transcripts I have read.” But he said, “If Donald Trump is the president, I am working with Donald Trump.”
Espy said an analysis of the 2018 results by a national research group indicated that the black percent of the electorate in his runoff election in 2018 was 32.5 percent and that he received about 95 percent of that vote. He received 18 percent of the white vote, according to the analysis. Espy’s own pollsters from 2018 have indicated they believe the African American share of the vote in 2018 was 35 percent, but Espy now disputes those numbers. To be successful in 2020, Espy said he must increase the black percentage of the electorate and also must attract more white voters.
“It is an equation and you have to work both sides. I am going after everybody,” he said.
More than 900,000 Mississippians voted in the runoff election last year – a record for the state in a mid-term. The turnout in a presidential year is expected to be more than 1 million.
But it is less likely that Trump will visit Mississippi late in the electoral process to campaign for Hyde-Smith as he did three times in 2018. After all, Trump probably will be focused on visiting swing states in an effort to ensure his re-election.
Referencing controversial comments Hyde-Smith made in 2018 about being willing to attend a public hanging and joking about voter suppression, Espy said, “I will be the candidate to bring people together, not tear them apart.”
While Espy said he wants to start campaigning early, in reality the party primary elections are just around the corner in March.