Analysis: Espy places race at center of Senate campaign. How will Hyde-Smith respond?

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Protesters listen to speakers while in front of the Governor’s Mansion during the historic Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Jackson on Saturday, June 6, 2020.

Mike Espy, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in November, is making no bones about this election in this moment in a reframed campaign strategy announced Monday morning: Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith has a race problem.

“Cindy Hyde-Smith is holding us back, and she’s hurting our state,” Espy says in an ad released Monday morning that focuses on his personal experiences with racism. “With her talk of public hangings and glorifying Confederate symbols, Cindy Hyde-Smith is trying to drag us back into the worst of Mississippi’s history.”

Following several police and vigilante killings of Black Americans earlier this year, millions have taken to the streets and ballot boxes to protest racial injustice and inequity in government, capturing the full attention of every politician in the high stakes 2020 election year.

While race has long proven an escapable political issue — even in a state like Mississippi with a bitter history of racist violence — it has become a focal point of most every federal election this cycle.

The national Black Lives Matter movement has already affected Mississippi in historic and profound ways. Lawmakers in June voted to remove the state flag, which flew for 126 years and was the last in the nation containing the Confederate battle emblem, after decades of intense debate and political apprehension. Confederate iconography across the state — including statues, building names and nicknames — has been removed by local government officials.

While a victory in ruby red Mississippi remains elusive for statewide Democrats, the optics of the state’s 2020 Senate election seem increasingly appealing for Espy in this national moment: a Black candidate who has already broken racial barriers in his political career challenging a white incumbent who has a questionable history on race.

In 2018, Espy and Hyde-Smith squared off in the special election to fill the remainder of the late Sen. Thad Cochran’s term. Late in that campaign, videos surfaced of Hyde-Smith saying she would “attend a public hanging” and suggesting that certain young people shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Also late in that campaign, a 2014 photo surfaced of Hyde-Smith posing for a photo with Confederate artifacts.

Money poured into Espy’s campaign as a result during the three-week runoff between the two candidates, and national corporations publicly asked Hyde-Smith to return previous campaign contributions.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Mike Espy, center, attends the Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Jackson on Saturday, June 6, 2020.

Still, Hyde-Smith won the race by eight points. For his part, Espy says he knows where to improve upon his 2018 results. To win this November, Espy says, he needs to attract historic Black voter turnout and win moderate white voters who have become disconcerted with many divisive Republican leaders.

On Monday morning, Espy rolled out a refocused campaign strategy. In a two-minute digital ad — which his campaign is boosting with a six-figure media buy — Espy tells powerful racial stories he hasn’t shared publicly.

Espy, who was elected the state’s first Black congressman post-Reconstruction and remains the nation’s only Black secretary of agriculture, talks about how his father’s nursing home handled the body of 14-year-old Emmett Till after he was lynched in 1955. He also discussed the racism he and his twin sister, who were among 18 Black students who integrated the Yazoo City High School, encountered during that time.

“Every day I faced harassment,” Espy says in the ad. “Teachers sprayed me with fire extinguishers — teachers. Students were calling me the N-word so much that sometimes I thought it was my middle name. There were threats of violence that often chased me out into the street.”

Espy’s new strategy is a diversion from the campaign he ran in 2018. On the trail two years ago, he worked to avoid focusing too much on race. He was criticized by pundits for focusing too much of his efforts on attracting white moderate voters, who remained largely uninspired by his candidacy, and he missed internal targets for Black voter turnout.

This year, unlike two years ago, Espy has not shied away from race. He attended a June Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Jackson, wearing a “Black Votes Count” T-shirt from his historic 1986 campaign. His campaign hosted a virtual fundraiser with Stacey Abrams, the native Mississippian who narrowly lost the 2018 Georgia governor’s race and has become one of the country’s most prolific Black political leaders.

Last week, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a Black senator from New Jersey, sent a fundraising email on behalf of Espy with the subject line: “The first Black senator from Mississippi since Reconstruction.”

On Sunday, Espy sent a fundraising email that boosts the candidacy of Raphael Warnock, a Black man running for U.S. Senate in Georgia, writing: “We believe that two Black men from Georgia and Mississippi can become U.S. Senators and unite people who are tired of elected leaders holding our states back.”

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Cindy Hyde-Smith

Hyde-Smith’s campaign, meanwhile, has remained largely silent on most issues this year, including race. As debate over removing the state flag heated up last month, the incumbent U.S. senator ignored reporters for several days and became one of the last statewide elected officials to publicly comment on the issue.

On June 11, Hyde-Smith released her first statement on the matter, saying: “I appreciate the views of all Mississippians and hope to continue Mississippi’s forward momentum. Should the people of Mississippi and their elected leaders decide to begin the process of finding a more unifying banner that better represents all Mississippians and the progress we have made as a state, I would support that effort.”

Espy outraised Hyde-Smith 3-to-1 in the second quarter of 2020, and Hyde-Smith has raised less this cycle than any Senate incumbent who isn’t retiring. Some pundits believe her controversial 2018 comments have led to her current fundraising struggles. Several major national political action committees that gave to Hyde-Smith in 2018 have not cut checks to her campaign so far this year.