Why you should care
Because Mississippi will have the nation’s attention — three weeks after Election Day.
Editor’s note: This story is an OZY encore that first appeared in October. Mike Espy faces Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith in a nationally watched run-off election Tuesday, November 27.
When Mike Espy gives a reporter a tour of his law office turned campaign headquarters, the U.S. Senate candidate does so with an eye toward history. He shepherds me toward a rack displaying dozens of awards, from taekwondo trophies to choir plaques, making sure to highlight the 1988 “silver rifle” award the National Rifle Association gave him for his pro-gun voting record. That was back when the Yazoo City native served as the first African-American to represent Mississippi at the federal level since Reconstruction. He segues to framed photos of him and Nelson Mandela, whom he met on a trade mission while serving as the first Black secretary of agriculture, as well as with President Bill Clinton, who appointed Espy and charged him with helping negotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The trip down memory lane, which avoids Espy’s federal indictment, is far from accidental. It’s been almost three decades since his state elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate, and the civil rights trailblazer is using his experience as a key part of his pitch to Mississippi voters. “I’m the only one who has reached across the chasm,” the 64-year-old says, stretching his hands to signify the political divide. “I’m the only one who has served in Washington more than a couple of months.” He expounds on that line of attack the day after our interview, in a raspy voice almost lost while beginning a speech at the annual Neshoba County Fair. His opponents “are full of talking promises, but I’m here to tell you what I’ve done,” Espy tells the crowd of a couple hundred.
It’s a bold strategy in these anti-establishment times when most candidates hesitate to emphasize time served in the nation’s capital. Still, this kind of experienced sobriety — also deployed by Democrats Phil Bredesen in Tennessee and Joe Manchin in West Virginia — might just be how Democrats win U.S. Senate seats in bright-red states. While these states are home to many energized Donald Trump supporters, the president’s big margins of victory also included conservatives who might be turned off by Trump’s behavior and willing to turn to a calmer, more familiar alternative.
Espy must rely on a huge turnout from minority voters in the state with the highest proportion of Black residents in America.
Meanwhile, Espy is making political hay of Trump’s trade conflict with China that has led to retaliatory tariffs against soybeans, which, at $109.7 million, is Mississippi’s top export — all of which was sent to China. “This is the antithesis of conservatism,” says Espy, who emphasizes his free market and open trade stances.
Espy must also rely on a huge turnout from minority voters in the state with the highest proportion of Black residents in America (37.8 percent). Recently, get-out-the-vote groups, from the NAACP to Black Votes Matter, have targeted Mississippi. They hope to replicate Doug Jones’ stunning victory last year next door in Alabama, as civil rights concerns — from the rising prominence of White supremacist groups to voter suppression allegations — take center stage.
This three-way open seat race to replace retired Sen. Thad Cochran is likely to head to a top two runoff, assuming no one can reach 50 percent on Nov. 6. An internal poll conducted for Espy’s campaign showed him leading both hypothetical matchups against the Republicans, interim Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and insurgent conservative Chris McDaniel — but his chances would be a lot better against McDaniel. “I think he is the answer to get us back a Democratic seat,” says Candy Woolverton, a 62-year-old retired Mississippi schoolteacher. Trump is worried enough that he staged a political rally in Southaven this month in which he said Hyde-Smith “always had my back.”
Still, turning Mississippi blue is unlikely, and our exclusive election prediction model conducted in conjunction with Republican data and technology firm 0ptimus finds that Espy has a 16.1 percent chance of victory. Republicans dominate here, holding all but one statewide post and all but one federal office. Despite their numbers, African-American turnout is typically low, due in part to poverty and to political subterfuge. Accusations of voter suppression have long dogged the state, and 61 percent of those who lost their right to vote in the state since 1994 are African-American, according to an analysis by Mississippi Today earlier this year.
And with Espy’s Washington experience comes substantial baggage. He had to resign in 1994, less than two years into his term as agriculture secretary. That was due to a White House investigation into improper gifts, including a scholarship given to his girlfriend by a foundation run by Tyson Foods. “He was too corrupt for Bill Clinton’s Cabinet, so go figure that,” quips Ryan Walters, a policy writer for the McDaniel campaign.
“I was not guilty,” Espy says, but he resigned anyway, at Clinton’s request. Espy was so sure of his innocence that he rejected three plea bargains, and after four years of investigations, he was acquitted of all charges. He returned to Jackson, building a private legal practice for the past two decades while giving guidance to county governments and working as chairman of a nonprofit that encourages economic development in poor areas, including building grocery stores in food deserts and credit unions in public schools. “I had to hold up my reputation,” he says. “My name is too important. I had my grandfather’s name.”
His grandfather, the son of slaves who built the hospital Espy was born in, was a prominent newspaperman who started a health insurance company in Yazoo City. Back in those Jim Crow days, Espy, who suffered from asthma as a kid, still had to enter the doctor’s office through the garage. Now Espy is knocking on Mississippians’ doors, asking them to make him the state’s first Black U.S. senator since Reconstruction, one heck of a piece of history for his wall.