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.
“You should be a senator for everybody. It’s not just about representing white or Black people. Mike Espy says he is going to represent all people, even if they don’t vote for him. He’s willing to work with anybody who has good ideas. I don’t know if there’s anything more important than that.
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.
“I’m voting for Mike Espy for one major reason: Mike is dedicated to making Mississippi a state where young people want to stay. Brain drain is a huge thing that he talks about. As a graduate student approaching graduation, I’ve been tempted to leave the state. The fact that he has gone out of his way to try to talk to younger Mississippians, that shows me he’s dedicated to making this a place where we can have a future.
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.
“My background is a little unique given that I grew up on farmland in north Mississippi. We rented our land to cotton farmers. A majority of my family is in public education, and that’s the path I ended up taking as well. I grew up in Eupora, a very conservative small town. It often felt pretty closed-minded to bigger issues.
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.
“I am a moderate. That’s not what we’ve had. I want someone who will help make Mississippi a place where our young people will want to stay instead of moving on to greener pastures. I want those pastures here. I want someone who will support Mississippi, even if that means disagreeing with the president. That’s not what we have now.
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 do a lot of work outside the state, and it makes me sick the way people see us. They make assumptions about this state, and I need somebody in office who doesn’t fit that stereotype. Cindy Hyde-Smith fits that old, racist, white stereotype. Race issues are very important for me. My husband is from Thailand. I can see already that my young children have a different experience than I had because of their brown skin. We have a conversation almost every day about whether we need to leave Mississippi. I love this state to my core, and I don’t want to leave. But I’m so worried that I won’t feel comfortable staying here if people like Cindy Hyde-Smith keep getting elected to represent us.
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.
“Mike Espy has proven himself to be a person who can work to get things done that the people of Mississippi need. He can work across the aisle, which I think is going to be more and more important. He’s been willing to talk about the issues, and his opponent has not. And I think that says a lot about his position. He’s willing to talk civilly and in public about issues, and his opponent has not. I think that says a lot about his opponent.
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.
“Cindy Hyde-Smith has aligned herself with Trump and Mitch McConnell in the GOP, and they don’t seem to have regular people in mind. They rushed through a Supreme Court confirmation without figuring out COVID relief. That’s a big deal. You have so many people out of work. When you look across Mississippi, the majority of folks who have been hit the hardest are low-income workers. They don’t have safety nets to fall back on. They’re going to be relying on some sort of assistance to make it through the pandemic.
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.
“I am registered Democrat, but I vote how I feel usually instead of just straight down the party line. It’s hard in the South. There are a lot of lines drawn, and a lot of times you have to pick one side. It’s important to see where everyone is coming from.
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.
“Anyone like me who went to public and state schools, we know education is number one. I taught at an inner city school, and I saw the difference in the opportunities those students had versus what I had. I think he understands the needs and problems from kindergarten on up. And I feel like he’s on board for rural schools, especially.
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.
“Working at a Christian institution, I know that one of the big issues for Christian populations is whether candidates are pro-life. For me, I don’t think we can decide an election on a single issue or just one very small part of that issue. ‘Pro-life’ doesn’t just mean child in the womb, but it also means what happens after they’re born, that they have access to healthcare and education after they’re born. That’s part of being pro-life. Cindy Hyde-Smith says she’s pro-life, but she doesn’t say really what that means.
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.
“I’m not impressed with Cindy Hyde-Smith at all. She hasn’t represented the Mississippi I want the nation to see. I don’t appreciate some comments she’s made that have made us look really bad.
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.
“I don’t think Cindy Hyde-Smith has been effective at all. She hasn’t done anything. She hasn’t affected my life in any way, and I haven’t seen her do much for Mississippi. I believe Mike Espy is a good man. He’s trustworthy, and I agree with what he says about healthcare, which is the biggest issue for me. I know what’s happening in rural areas. You see rural hospitals closing. My husband has been trying to get a doctor’s appointment, and the earliest appointment he can get is in February.
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.”