Mike Espy, a Mississippi Democrat whose heated special Senate runoff against Cindy Hyde-Smith in 2018 turned into a nationally watched affair, announced on Tuesday that he will challenge her to a rematch in 2020.
Espy, a former US member of the House and agriculture secretary in the Clinton administration, would be the state’s first black senator since Reconstruction if elected. Last year, he fell short in his race against Hyde-Smith, losing by 8 percentage points despite her having a string of controversies, many of them touching on issues of race.
“It’s official. I’m running to be Mississippi’s next U.S. Senator. Too many people here can’t find a decent job, rural hospitals are closing, and the price for education is just too high,” Espy said in a tweet on Tuesday. He added in a statement on his Senate campaign website that “Cindy Hyde-Smith promotes images that do not represent today’s Mississippi.”
“She openly laughs about public hangings and makes statements supporting voter suppression,” Espy said, referencing two videos posted in 2018 in which Hyde-Smith appeared to say laws that make it “just a little more difficult” for attendees of some of the state’s universities to vote are a “great idea” and joked that she’d be in “the front row” if one of her supporters invited her to a “public hanging.”
“It’s hard to bring good jobs to Mississippi with a United States Senator acting like that,” Espy said in the statement on his campaign site.
In a response at the time, Hyde-Smith called criticism about her “public hanging” remarks “twisted,” saying that “it was turned into a weapon” to be used against her. She said the other video was “selectively edited” and that she had been “making a joke.”
The 2018 runoff was triggered when no candidate received 50% of the vote. Hyde-Smith had been appointed that April to fill the Senate seat vacated by Republican Sen. Thad Cochran, who had stepped down due to health reasons.
President Donald Trump – who won Mississippi by 18 percentage points in 2016 – campaigned for Hyde-Smith the day before the runoff.
Ultimately, there wasn’t much movement off the 2016 baseline. No Democrat has come closer than 8 points to a Republican in the last 30 years, and only two Democrats have come within single digits.
Espy served as the agriculture secretary under President Bill Clinton until he resigned in 1994 after the start of a probe into allegations he had improperly accepted gifts and favors while heading the department. He was later acquitted of related charges.
Jamie Ehrlich, Eric Bradner and Harry Enten contributed to this report.