Mike Espy Erases 25-Point Deficit In Bid to Become Mississippi's First Black Senator Since Reconstruction

Just about two years ago, Mike Espy was on stage at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum giving a concession speech in a special election to the U.S. Senate when it hit him: He might have lost, but he wasn't giving up.

He decided then and there that he would run again for that seat in 2020—and he started that night.

Fast forward two years, and he has done just that. Since March, Espy has gone from being more than 25 points behind his opponent, Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, to just 1 point back, according to polls of likely voters from The Tyson Group. He also raised 20 times more cash than his opponent in July, August and September.

If he's successful, he will be the first Black senator to serve Mississippi since Reconstruction. It wouldn't be the first time Espy made history, but he prefers to look to the future rather than focus on his pioneering past.

"I've already been the first this and that. I've done that," Espy told Newsweek, rattling off a list of accomplishments that include serving as Mississippi's first Black assistant secretary of state, assistant attorney general and congressman since the late 1800s—a position he was re-elected to three times before becoming the first Black person to lead the United States Department of Agriculture under President Bill Clinton.

"I'm not running to be something, I'm running to do something," Espy, 66, said about his Senate candidacy. "I'm tired of being last. Mississippi is tired of being last. We're last in health care, we're last in income, we're last in job opportunities. I want to do something about it."

The contest is an exact rematch between Espy and Hyde-Smith. The two faced off two years ago to fill the seat vacated by longtime Republican Thad Cochran, who resigned in the middle of his term due to health reasons.

Espy came closer than any Democrat in 36 years to winning statewide office in Mississippi, losing to Hyde-Smith by roughly 8 percentage points. He remembered thinking if he had more time to campaign, the result would have been much closer.

"I said, 'If we did this well in six months, think about what we can do if I never stop running,'" Espy said. He took just a few weeks off before beginning his plan to run for Senate again in 2020.

It has been more than a century since a Black lawmaker represented Mississippi in the U.S. Senate, despite the state's population being nearly 40 percent Black—the highest of any state in the country.

In order to fully examine the voting problems that plague the state, Espy said you would have to go back to the Reconstruction Era, a provision made to the 1890 Mississippi Constitution that diluted Black voting power and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

"I've lived here all my life," Espy said. "I know that when it comes to voting laws, we're behind so many states in the nation."

This year, Mississippi voters will decide whether to get rid of a statewide election process that dates back to the Jim Crow era. The law, the only one of its kind in the U.S., currently requires a statewide candidate to win a majority of the popular vote and a majority of the electoral vote. If residents adopt the new amendment, a statewide candidate receiving a majority of the popular vote would win. Legislators put the amendment on the November 3rd ballot after facing pressure from a lawsuit.

Derrick Johnson, the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a Mississippi native, said part of the problem is that the state has not fully addressed the persisted racial inequalities that have been visible for centuries. After all, Mississippi just removed the Confederate Army battle emblem from its flag this year. It was the last state in the United States to do so.

"Mike Espy is a test to determine whether or not the state is ready to move beyond race and look for qualifications to determine how they will cast their ballots," Johnson said. "If he's successful, it will go a long way to begin to change the realities of the state as it relates to race relations and allow many people to see what is possible."

mike espy senate candidate mississippi
Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Mike Espy speaks to reporters after voting at a polling place at Highland Colony Baptist Church, November 27, 2018 in Ridgeland, Mississippi. Espy is running for Senate again in 2020 in a rematch against Cindy Hyde-Smith. Drew Angerer/Getty

Espy also attributed the lack of Black representation in Mississippi to a "legacy of disinvestment" that has left candidates without the structure, data and tools to discover and appeal to more voters. He blamed the Democratic Party and other national groups for failing to invest in the state over the past few decades.

"We got the population to elect African Americans to statewide office," Espy said. "We've got more Black voters here per capita than any state in the nation. They are here. But they're not organized."

In 2020, his campaign has done its own work to identify and target 100,000 Black voters that could help make the difference. They are men and women who showed up for Barack Obama in 2008 but didn't go to the polls for Hillary Clinton in 2016 or Espy in 2018. While he'll need record turnout from African American residents to win, he said it's his goal to build a broad coalition of voters, including white independents and Democrats.

"We need to convince them that voting for Espy will change their future," Espy said. "That's my mission."

For a majority of the election cycle, the race has seemed out of reach for Espy. Most political forecasters have rated the race as a safe or a least likely hold for Republicans. Plus, Hyde-Smith is likely to see a boost due to the fact that President Donald Trump will also be on the ballot. Trump won Mississippi by 18 points in 2016 and is currently polling ahead of Joe Biden by an average of 14 points.

But Espy said there's been more momentum for his team over the past few months, in no small part due to the nationwide unrest over racial injustice and police brutality following the death of George Floyd.

This summer, Espy found himself in a crowd participating in a Black Lives Matter march in Jackson, Mississippi. Organizers expected just a few hundred people to show up, but the event garnered more than 3,000 attendees. Many have said it was the city's largest demonstration since the civil rights movement.

"We're meeting the moment," Espy said. "George Floyd's murder was a moment. Taking down the Mississippi state flag? That's a moment. Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg's death is another moment. What we have to do here is meet all those moments."

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated that it has been over a century since a Black lawmaker represented Mississippi on Capitol Hill. The story has been updated to reflect that it has been over a century since a Black lawmaker was elected to represent the state in the Senate.