Mississippi Democrats must look for Plan C after stinging defeats Tuesday

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Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Democratic Senate challenger Mike Espy concedes to incumbent Cindy Hyde-Smith at the Mississippi Two Museums on Nov. 3, 2020.

Mississippi Democrats must be looking for a Plan C after Tuesday’s disappointing election results.

Mike Espy ran a well-financed campaign — the best funded by a Democrat in the state’s history — as he embraced the national Democratic Party and its leaders in his challenge of incumbent U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith. His goal was to put together a strong ground game to attract new, presumably progressive voters to the polls and to run sleek campaign ads trying to convince white suburban, primarily women voters to cross over and support him. He garnered roughly 42% of the vote in unofficial and incomplete returns against Hyde-Smith.

By contrast, in 2019 then-Attorney General Jim Hood, vying to be the first Democratic governor since 1999, ran on his own, barely mentioning national Democrats. His campaign ads, often featuring his big old pickup truck, rifle and dog, sent the message that while a Democrat he was a good ole boy. Hood’s campaign was closer to the campaigns run by other Democrats viewed to be legitimate statewide candidates. Hood came up short in his bid for the Governor’s Mansion just as other Democrats had in past elections.

Before his 2019 defeat to Republican Tate Reeves, Hood for many years was one of the few bright spots for Mississippi Democrats, serving four terms as attorney general, three of those as the only statewide elected Democrat.

Espy, who was involved in Hood’s 2019 campaign, took to heart that Albert Einstein quote that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results” and opted to run a different kind of campaign.

But Plan B also did not work.

After the Associated Press called the election Tuesday, it took Espy several minutes to make a public appearance at his election night party that was limited in attendance because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He did not speak from the stage, but instead stood in the middle of the floor, answering multiple questions from reporters.

He was obviously disappointed, but did not duck questions. Espy said he planned to leave the campaign apparatus that his record fund-raising built to the beleaguered state Democratic Party.

“I am proud of the data we have been able to amass,” Espy said. “We are leaving it all with the Mississippi Democratic Party so that others who might want to try for office can use it. We have targeted data. We have precinct specific data.”

He said that “maybe others who come behind me can do a better job.”

Perhaps, but both Espy and Hood were unique politicians. Hood had a rural, crossover appeal. Espy was a history-making politician as the state’s first African American U.S. House member since the 19th century and the nation’s first Black secretary of agriculture.

Despite losing, both Hood and Espy gave Democrats hope in the past two elections. Espy won a respectable 46.4% of the vote in his 2018 special election against Hyde-Smith and Hood garnered 46.8% in his gubernatorial campaign against Reeves. Both won a few majority white counties – an accomplishment in these days for a Mississippi Democrat. On Tuesday night, it appears the only majority white county Espy won was Oktibbeha, home of Mississippi State University.

Espy will finish with more votes than he garnered in 2018, but a lower percentage of the vote. In high turnout presidential election years, Mississippi Democrats are essentially swamped when both sides are motivated to vote.

It does not appear Espy was able to generate the record turnout among Black voters he said he would need to prevail and it is unlikely that he garnered the 22% of the white vote he had stated as a goal.

Despite that much ballyhooed campaign apparatus, Espy got a smaller percentage of the total vote than Democrat Ronnie Musgrove did when he ran against Republican Roger Wicker in a 2008 Senate election in another presidential year that set a record for voter turnout in Mississippi. There was speculation that the 2008 record turnout of 1,289,939 voters would be broken this year. While the election is yet to be certified and votes are still being counted, it is questionable whether a record will be set. Interestingly it was a record turnout nationally.

But it is difficult to argue that a higher turnout would have helped state Democrats. Right now there are just more Republican-leaning voters in the state than Democrats.

“The fact is it’s not about a strategy or the quality of the candidate when it comes to a Democrat running for statewide office in Mississippi,” said Michael Rejebian, who worked on the Hood campaign. “Republicans could put a hamster on the ballot and as long as it had an ‘R’ dangling from its neck it would win. That is the current landscape in which Democrats find ourselves.”

Plan C?