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When he launched his 2020 U.S. Senate campaign, Democrat Mike Espy said he needed to do two things to defeat Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith: inspire historic Black voter turnout and earn 22% of the white vote.
Democratic strategists feel certain that more Black voters will vote this year than in the state’s history. But whether Espy can earn broad support from white voters, who in Mississippi have long supported conservative candidates like Hyde-Smith, remains less clear.
Espy has focused much of his campaign messaging and outreach on white women in recent days. Across the nation the past four years, white women who live in suburban areas who have higher educational attainment levels have flocked to Democratic candidates like Espy. Mississippi saw clear signs of that shift the past couple years as Democrats performed better than ever in suburban counties.
Over the past couple weeks, Mississippi Today spoke with white women in key target cities and counties that Espy needs to win and asked them why they supported Espy over Hyde-Smith. Here’s what they had to say.
Gratia Karmes, 73 years old, Starkville resident, retired social worker.
I’m a recent transplant to Mississippi. Not a lot of people like to talk about it, but that’s the new Mississippi. It’s not all just people who are from here. One of the things that most troubled me was the state flag with the Confederate symbol. Of course, when lawmakers were trying to change the flag, Cindy Hyde-Smith didn’t support that. Right there, I knew I would never vote for her.
I heard Mike Espy speak when he was in Starkville a couple weeks ago. I was so impressed with what he had to say, particularly about healthcare. Affordable, accessible healthcare for everyone is such a big deal to me. The fact that the Trump administration is trying to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, that really bothers me. I worry about how that would affect me and so many other Mississippians.”
Miranda Estes, 24 years old, Hattiesburg resident, graduate student.
Cindy Hyde-Smith has not even tried to speak to our age group. I am a huge proponent for voting for women in any race. But she almost avoids questions about being a woman. Mike has specifically said he supports women-owned businesses, and he sees women as having a critical seat at the table. He really works for that. Seeing who he’s hired on his campaign, it’s not just men. I feel valued as not only a millennial but as a woman, whereas with Cindy Hyde-Smith I don’t feel valued as either.”
Molly Pittman, 29 years old, Ocean Springs resident, public school teacher.
Mike Espy is for all people of Mississippi. His plans with education, healthcare, economy, agriculture, I feel like he’s speaking to every person in the state, and not just one group of people. I feel like he is trying to make this state better for everybody who lives in it. He’s not leaving anybody behind, and he’s not catering to one group of people.
I love his healthcare plan and that he addresses getting more funding to rural hospitals. My hometown has a pretty massive hospital. It’s a small town, but it serves a ton of people in that area. That could be very bad for the people who live there if it were to go under. Also, I’m a huge advocate for renewable energy. I really appreciate that he talks openly about wanting to get us back into the Paris Agreement. And, of course, as a teacher, I really like that he wants to fully fund public schools.”
Michelle Dawson, 61 years old, Madison resident, retired civil servant.
As a former civil servant, I just want good government back. I’m ready for a responsive representative. I think Mike Espy can help with that, more so than (Hyde-Smith) can. She just doesn’t tell it like it is. I don’t think she’s a good representative to us. The whole flag thing, the way she goes along with what Trump says or does… I just disagree with her. I’m ready for a fresh start, and I know Espy can give that to us.”
Amanda Koonlaba, 39 years old, Saltillo resident, teaching artist.
I’m sorry, but I want somebody who doesn’t say things like, ‘I’d sit on the front row of a public hanging.’ You can’t say that, whether you meant it or not. I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh well, it’s just a turn of phrase.’ The thing is, though, is that so many people in this state are suffering. Hearing things like that makes the suffering worse. This stuff is real, and you’re not seeing it because you’re living in a white bubble.”
Dianne Walton, 72 years old, Meridian resident, retired college administrator.
I’m a grandmother who just wants the very best for my grandchildren. It has been my habit in the past never to put political signs in my yard. This election matters so much to me that I have an Espy sign in my yard. I think it’s absolutely necessary that Mississippi gets the press it deserves, and we haven’t gotten that with (Hyde-Smith).”
Marissa Wyant, 40 years old, Oxford resident, PhD candidate.
We should’ve been more prepared for it, but we weren’t. When it happens, you have to react appropriately. I don’t think the current Senate and executive branch has reacted appropriately. Cindy Hyde-Smith is part of that. When McConnell says they won’t vote on COVID relief, speak up. You might not have the voting power all alone, but you can speak up and say, ‘This is not right.'”
Lauretta Prince, 39 years old, Vicksburg resident, former teacher.
So I’ve done a lot of reading about what both candidates have said. Whether you’re talking about education, the coronavirus, whatever, there needs to be a plan. In a lot of cases, it doesn’t seem like Cindy Hyde-Smith has a plan. A lot of answers she’s given, she’s deferred to people either above or below her – she says local leaders should have to deal with certain things, or other things are dealt with higher up than her. I want to hear from her that at least in these major issues, ‘The buck stops here. This is what I’m doing about it.’ I just don’t hear that from her.”
Barbara McCain, 69 years old, Southaven resident, retired teacher.
Mississippi cannot stay in the Civil War. We’ve really got to move forward, and he’ll be the one to do it. Cindy Hyde-Smith did not support changing the state flag. That was well overdue. I see her as white privileged, and I see him as someone who will understand the struggles of all Mississippians. We need Mike Espy.”
Kristi Melancon, 38 years old, Clinton resident, English professor.
To me, Cindy Hyde-Smith represents a past and an unfortunate present that is supportive of racism and racial inequity. For me, Espy acknowledges things like that health disparities and educational disparities are a real problem that need to be addressed in order to move this state forward.”
Lindsey Todd, 35 years old, Biloxi resident, public school instructional coach.
Looking at policy, I support more of the vision and information I’ve received from Espy versus Cindy Hyde-Smith. I had the opportunity recently to tune in and watch him do a sit-down with educators. He seems to understand where we’re at, especially as it pertains to the funding of public schools and the teacher shortage. He actually has some viable plans to help with all that.
Just generally, I appreciate that when he’s asked any question about policy, it’s not just the generic political answer of, ‘We’re going to do better.’ He gives straight answers, and he doesn’t give that politician’s spin.”
Jan Patrick, 76 years old, Brandon resident, retired librarian.
Mike Espy cares about helping Mississippi not be last in education and in healthcare. We’re better than that, and he wants to move us forward. I feel strongly that electing Cindy Hyde-Smith would be going backwards. We don’t want to go backwards. We want to move forward.”