Democrat Mike Espy said to defeat Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in the U.S. Senate race on Nov. 3, he will need a historic surge in Black voter turnout.
Espy, the first Black Mississippi congressman since Reconstruction and the first Black U.S. secretary of agriculture, lost to Hyde-Smith by more than 7 points in a 2018 special election runoff. But some 2020 polls have Espy as close as 1 point to Hyde-Smith, and Espy has raised more money than Hyde-Smith in all but one reporting period this year.
We asked several members of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus, who represent a majority of Black Mississippians and remain in close touch with the constituencies across the state, how they think Espy is doing this year and whether they sense enthusiasm in their districts for his candidacy.
“There is a lot of enthusiasm in the Delta. The Delta came out big for Mike Espy in 2018,” said state Sen. Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville, the Senate minority leader. “I think it will be even greater support in a presidential year.”
Rep. Bryant Clark, D-Pickens, who represents portions of the south Delta, agreed. “I think in my area people are energized. I think it is spilling into the Senate race. I think Espy will do well in the second congressional district.”
But some members of the Legislative Black Caucus fear that there isn’t yet enough excitement to give Espy — and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden — a chance for victory in reliably Republican Mississippi. Still, even skeptical Legislative Caucus members expressed optimism that there is still time for Espy to generate that enthusiasm.
“(Enthusiasm) has not been there so far in our community,” said Rep. Robert Johnson of Natchez, the minority leader in the House. “He needs it to explode. It is not quite exploding yet.
“He is doing well. He is working hard. People need to understand how important this election is. I am not sure they do yet.”
When Espy announced his plans late last year to again challenge Hyde-Smith, he revealed the formula that he believed would guarantee a victory. That consisted of an increase in Black voter turnout by 3% from the 32.5% that he earned in the 2018 special election. Espy also seeks to increase his share of the white vote from the 2018 special election by 4% to 22%.
In that 2018 special election runoff, Espy garnered just under 47% of the vote against Hyde-Smith, who became the first woman elected from Mississippi to the U.S. Senate. Most national political forecasters rate the Mississippi Senate race as a safe Republican seat, though there is a recent poll indicating a 1% Hyde-Smith lead. Some, including the Hyde-Smith campaign, question the findings of that poll.
On the national MSNBC television show hosted by Lawrence O’Donnell last week, Espy said people around the nation might not realize Mississippi has the highest percent of African Americans in the nation at about 38%.
“So we have a lot to work with from the beginning,” said Espy, vying to be the first African American elected by popular vote to the Senate from Mississippi and the first African American to win statewide office since the 1800s. “All we have to do is build our coalition — just get out the Black voters like never before and get enough white votes in the suburbs, in the college towns or on the Mississippi Gulf Coast to build that coalition to do what we need to do and we are doing it.”
Espy believes his effort to drive up Black voter turnout will be helped by having Democrats Biden and Kamala Harris on the ballot. Harris is vying to become the first Black and Indian American woman elected to the office of vice president. Espy also said interest in the November election could be bolstered as Mississippi voters are being asked to approve or reject a replacement for the 126-year-old state flag that included the Confederate battle emblem in its design.
State Rep. Zakiya Summers, D-Jackson, said she agreed that multiple issues on the ballot this November could attract African American voters to the polls. She said those issues already are attracting voters in Hinds County, home of Jackson, the state’s capital city and home by substantial margin of the largest concentration of Black voters.
“There is a lot of excitement for the Nov. 3 election and I have seen that,” she said. “At the Hinds County Courthouse, daily, people are standing in line up to an hour or more to vote by absentee. “
Mississippi is one of the few states that does not have no excuse early voting or mail-in voting, but the elderly, people who are going to be away from their home on Election Day, the disabled and some impacted by the coronavirus can vote early.
“If they could vote tomorrow, they’d be rushing to the precincts even in the midst of grappling with a pandemic,” Summers said. “They are excited about being civically engaged. And they’re certainly excited about supporting Secretary Espy.”
State Sen. Sollie Norwood, D-Jackson, added the surge in fundraising to the Espy campaign in recent months will provide the money to help with get out the vote efforts. Espy has said that the contributions he received in the 2018 election for the most part came in late, and his campaign was not able to plan in an effective manner how to spend the funds.
“The timeline that he had to prepare and to run last time was difficult,” Norwood said. “Actually, I don’t think Mike ever stopped running, you know, physically and mentally. I think he kept running, which is a good thing, his contacts in the community.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic has limited Espy’s ability to campaign, he has been engaged in more events in recent weeks. His campaign normally holds the events outdoors and mandates social distancing and mask wearing. The campaign has distributed personal protection equipment to members of the community in various areas of the state.
State Sen. Tammy Witherspoon, D-Magnolia, said such an effort was effective at the Pleasant Grove East McComb Baptist Church in her district.
“I think his support is picking up as it gets closer to Election Day,” Witherspoon said.
At a similar event in Greenwood, Espy was accompanied by veteran Sen. David Jordan, who is active in the influential Greenwood Voters League.
Sen. Angela Turner Ford, D-West Point, chair of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus, said Espy also was effective at an event in her hometown that she attended. But she said the caucus has not officially endorsed Espy.
“Many individual members have endorsed him,” said Turner Ford. “In terms of a group, we have not endorsed candidates — at least during my years as chair we have not.”