Can Mike Espy Win in Mississippi?

Democrats hope to replicate their Alabama success in another Deep South state, but it won't be easy.

Former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy (center), at an event in 2010 with former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (left) and Karen Miller-Kovach of Weight Watchers International (right).
AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis
April 6, 2018, 11:05 a.m.

Mike Espy announced a run for Senate in Mississippi on Friday, testing whether a prominent Democrat can win the seat even under uncommon circumstances.

In his campaign, the former congressman and Agriculture secretary will ask Mississippians for their vote for the first time in over 25 years, in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since John Stennis, a segregationist, left office a generation ago. But Republicans still view him as a threat in the unique environment of a special election.

In his statement Friday, Espy said he would wage his campaign with the same “spirit” exhibited by the man he seeks to replace, Thad Cochran, the 40-year veteran of the Senate who resigned on April 1. Espy said Cochran had a “calming voice” that held sway “above the din of chaos, acrimony, and bitterness that characterizes so much of Washington today.”

That sentiment echoed the one expressed by fellow Democrat Doug Jones on his way to a shocking Senate victory in neighboring Alabama’s special election in December.

“Mississippi is a different state and he’s a different candidate,” said Joe Trippi, an adviser to Espy who also worked on the Jones campaign. “But I think the one thing that is happening all over the country is people are looking for candidates that aren’t going to add to the chaos in Washington but actually bring people together.”

While he and other strategists in Mississippi acknowledge this election’s circumstances won’t be the same as those in Alabama, where the Republican candidate, Roy Moore, was accused of sexual misconduct with teenagers, even Republicans say that Espy has a path to victory.

That’s in part due to the unusual rules of a special election. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote on Nov. 6, the race will turn into a runoff held on Nov. 27 between the top two candidates. With at least three formidable candidates—the field includes Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith, who has been appointed to take Cochran's place in the Senate, and GOP state Sen. Chris McDaniel—a runoff is likely, and a Democrat has a good shot to make it should he consolidate his party’s support, which comprises roughly 40 percent of the electorate.

Much of the Democratic base in Mississippi is African-American. And Espy and his family have broken down the color barriers in his state over and over—and over again. His grandfather, the entrepreneur Thomas Jefferson Huddleston, operated a number of black funeral homes and built the first black hospital in the state, where Espy was born in 1953. In his statement Friday, Espy said his grandfather’s legacy was “the foundation of this campaign.”

Espy himself was the state's first black assistant secretary of state and its first black assistant attorney general, according to a Washington Post profile from 1986, when he became the first African-American elected to Congress from Mississippi since Reconstruction. He went to Washington in 1987 and was reelected three times before he was confirmed as the first black Agriculture secretary in 1993.

An independent counsel’s investigation seemed to end his political career in 1994, when he was forced out of office over allegations that he illegally took gifts from businesses and individuals. He was acquitted on all charges by a jury in federal court in 1998.

On Friday, he said that experience—being the subject of a four-year, multimillion dollar probe—“made me stronger, wiser, and more humble and faithful—and I discovered that in Mississippi, unlike Washington, people who know you best would give you the benefit of the doubt.”

When asked why Espy decided to return to politics, Oleta Fitzgerald, who worked for then-Rep. Espy in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, laughed and said, “Well, I never thought he was interested in leaving public office, actually.” She said Espy focused his time in Congress and in the Cabinet on a number of issues, including the economic development of rural areas, recovery efforts after the Great Flood of 1993, and housing for low-income people. The 2nd District of Mississippi remains to this day one of the poorest in the country.

“I think he sees it as his time,” Fitzgerald added. “He’s very concerned, as we all are, about where we are in this country.”

A recent poll put out by Espy's campaign shows that he is still very well known in the state. That could be in part because his family members held public office when he returned to the private sector. His brother Henry Espy served as the mayor of Clarksdale for well over 20 years up until 2013, and his nephew Chuck Espy served in the Mississippi House of Representatives before being elected mayor of the same city in 2017.

If elected, Espy would be the state’s first African-American elected to the Senate in well over 100 years. There have been 10 black senators in U.S. history: The first, Hiram Rhodes Revels, and the second, Blanche Bruce, were elected by the Mississippi state legislature. Bruce, who was born into slavery, ended his term in 1881.

For any Democrat to win a statewide office in Mississippi, he or she has to win Republican votes. In his opening campaign bid, Espy mixed in his liberal social views—”I stand firmly for civil rights, voting rights, and women’s rights because I know that these precious rights were not attained without generational struggle,” he wrote—with his commitment to reduce the budget deficit and protect the defense and agricultural industries in his state.

In the 2016 presidential race, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by almost 18 percentage points, or over 215,000 votes, in Mississippi. But Republican strategists still say Espy has an opportunity to take the Senate seat. They note his ability to reach across the aisle, and his support of Republican Haley Barbour for governor in 2007.

“There’s definitely a path for a Democrat to win in Mississippi,” Keith Heard, Cochran’s former chief of staff, told National Journal, pointing to Jim Hood, the state’s attorney general and one of the few Democratic statewide officials in the South. “Turnout is what counts. Things happen in special elections.”

Andy Taggart, a Republican who considered but decided against running for the seat, agreed.

“I have no doubt that it can happen,” Taggart said. “Mike Espy is a person of the gravitas and credibility that could make it happen here—not only to be a Democrat elected statewide, but an African-American elected statewide.”

Hyde-Smith and McDaniel, the tea party conservative, will fight over Republican voters. Each side claims that they’d be stronger in a runoff election against Espy than the other.

McDaniel’s supporters say he’s the only true conservative Republican in the race, noting Hyde-Smith served as a Democrat for much of her time in the state legislature and voted in the Democrats’ 2008 presidential primary. “He reflects the ideology of Mississippi,” said a strategist close to the McDaniel campaign. “Cindy Hyde-Smith is way over to the left.”

Hyde-Smith supporters say she, the state Agriculture secretary and soon to be sworn in as the first woman senator in the state’s history, is better attuned to the state’s voters and doesn’t have the baggage of McDaniel, who never conceded his bitter loss to Cochran in the 2014 Republican primary. They also emphasize her role as a Trump supporter, noting she was named to his agriculture advisory committee during the presidential campaign.

A recent poll released by Espy’s campaign showed him in the lead, with 34 percent, Hyde-Smith at 27 percent, and McDaniel at 21 percent. But this week, Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton jumped in the race, undermining Espy’s bid to unite Democrats.

In a brief interview Thursday, Shelton refrained from attacking Espy or other candidates in the race, and he described Trump’s record as one that “certainly leaves a lot to be desired.” He focused on delivering an economic message—underscoring his commitment to infrastructure projects, debt reduction, no new taxes, and a balanced budget—while projecting himself as a new face for the state.

“Mississippi has for decades had such a legacy of leadership in Washington, statesmen who got things done,” he said. “In November, we’re going to have to an opportunity to send the next generation of leadership to Washington to find real answers for real issues that affect people right here at home.”

Shelton will have an even more difficult time than Espy to get to the 50 percent necessary to win outright on Nov. 6.

“It’s disheartening that there’s another Democrat in the race,” said Fitzgerald, the former Espy staffer who is now director of the Children's Defense Fund's Southern regional office. “That is a challenge, but it will probably work itself out.”

Still, some Republicans don’t think that any Democrat could win the Senate seat. State Sen. Michael Watson, who supported McDaniel in the 2014 race, says it’s “unlikely” but acknowledged the possibility.

“Senator [Trent] Lott always told me anyone can lose, so I guess under the right circumstances, a Democrat could win,” said Watson, referring to the former Republican leader. “It’d take a perfect storm.”

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