Long-shot Espy campaign sees national boost in weeks before election

Mike Espy’s long-shot run for the Senate in Mississippi is garnering national attention in the weeks before Election Day, raising questions about whether the Democrat might have a shot in the deep-red state.

Espy faces a steep uphill climb in the Magnolia State. To win, and become the first Black person to represent the state as a senator in over a century, he would need historic Black turnout combined with significant support from other constituencies.

But Democrats point to several things things that could help with that. Above him on the ballot is Joe Biden, who has had enormous success turning out Black voters in the South. Below him are a number of candidates strategists say could galvanize the voting bloc. And there’s Espy himself, who has had the past two years — since losing a special election for the seat in 2018 — to build on and focus his campaign infrastructure.

November will mark the second time Espy, who represented the state’s 2nd Congressional District in the House in the late 1980s and early 1990s, will face off against Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) in a Senate race. She defeated Espy by 8 points in a runoff election in 2018 after no candidate won a simple majority of the vote in the special election. 

“This time, he’s retooled his team. He has been raising money, and taking a more direct approach to meeting the voter where they are, and not so much running a media kind of campaign,” veteran Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) told The Hill. 

The newfound attention on Espy comes after his campaign announced this week it brought in $4 million in the third quarter of 2020. Hyde-Smith hasn’t released her third-quarter fundraising yet but in the second quarter she brought in $212,000 to Espy’s $610,000. Meanwhile, a poll released by the Tyson Group last month showed Espy trailing Hyde-Smith by just 1 point. 

National groups have since turned their attention to the race. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) have provided field and organization assistance after Espy complained last month that his campaign was being overlooked by the party’s national apparatus. 

Espy said last week he took part in a national fundraising call focused solely on his race with the DNC. The DSCC gave the maximum direct donation of $49,000 to Espy’s campaign on Sept. 1 and recently organized a phone bank for the campaign. 

Additionally, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) sent out a fundraising email on behalf of Espy earlier this week, while the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump Republican group, announced last week they planned to support Espy. 

“We’re carving out a lot of paths to flip the Senate and the majority, and certainly Mississippi is an important state,” said a Democratic operative involved in the race.

Democrats say the political environment has changed in the two years since Espy ran for Senate and cite the power of the Black vote in the state. Mississippi is home to the largest share of Black voters out of any state in the country at 37 percent. 

“The Black vote will be the nerve center for success as it relates to Mike Espy and others getting across the finish line first,” said Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright. “And not just the Black vote showing up, but the Black vote showing up to vote for Democrats because there are occasions where African Americans have in places like Mississippi voted for Republican candidates.” 

Biden easily won the state’s Democratic primary, thanks in large part to carrying 84 percent of Mississippi’s Black electorate. Democrats also point to down-ballot races in the state, including Mississippi Supreme Court candidate and Court of Appeal Judge Latrice Westbrooks, who would make history as the first Black woman to serve on the state’s high court. 

“Obviously the top of the ticket always gets the attraction, but from where we are, we see that Supreme Court race as one of those staple races from a down-ballot standpoint, and actually helps the candidate in the race, as well as the person at the top of the ticket,” Thompson said. 

Thompson pointed to the role African American women in particular played in electing Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) in the special Senate election in Alabama in 2017. 

“The fact that we have an African American woman on a down-ballot race is key because as you know in Doug Jones’s race, it was the African American female vote that really, really engaged and made the difference,” he said.  

Others, however, point to the Alabama race as being markedly different from most races due to it taking place in an off-election year, as well as the numerous controversies surrounding Republican candidate Roy Moore. 

Espy isn’t only counting on the Black vote, however. He’s also eyeing voters in the state’s college towns and the more liberal Gulf Coast.

“All we have to do is build our coalition — just get out the Black voters like never before and get enough white votes in the suburbs, in the college towns or on the Mississippi Gulf Coast to build that coalition to do what we need to do and we are doing it,” he said on MSNBC last week.

Despite Democratic optimism surrounding the race, Republicans remain highly confident in Hyde-Smith’s reelection chances. 

“Mike Espy is a liberal who doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of being elected in Mississippi,” one spokesman from the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee told The Hill. 

A number of nonpartisan election forecasters back up Republican confidence. The Cook Political Report rates the race as “solid Republican,” while FiveThirtyEight reports that Hyde-Smith has a 91 percent chance of winning reelection.  

And at the top of the ticket, polling shows little reason for Republicans to be concerned about Trump’s chances in Mississippi. FiveThirtyEight shows Trump ahead of Biden by 12.2 percentage points in the race. 

As for the Black vote, Democrats caution that it will not be enough alone to put Espy over the edge on Election Day. 

“It’s enough to position him, but you still need a diverse coalition of constituencies in order to win, and that includes voters from all across the spectrum,” Seawright said.  

Tags Bennie Thompson doug jones Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden Roy Moore

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