Mike Espy has been forced to take some detours from the roadmap he developed last fall to challenge United States Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith.
When Espy mapped out his plans to challenge the Republican incumbent, no one had heard of COVID-19 and few people were talking about changing the Mississippi state flag to remove its controversial Confederate battle emblem from its design.
Now both of those issues could be major factors in November when the Democrat Espy and the Republican Hyde-Smith are on the ballot in a rematch from their 2018 special election that was held to replace longtime Sen. Thad Cochran who resigned for health reasons in April 2018 and who died in May 2019.
In 2001, Hyde-Smith was a freshman member of the Mississippi Senate when she voted with the majority and with every white member of the chamber – both Democrats and Republicans – to put on the ballot a choice between the old flag (with the Confederate battle emblem) and a new design. In that election, the old flag garnered 64 percent of the vote.
The debate over whether the flag, which many viewed as divisive, should be replaced re-emerged in recent weeks as protests sprung up across the nation, including Mississippi, over issues of racial injustice.
Of the current debate to change the flag, Hyde-Smith recently released a statement saying, “I appreciate the views of all Mississippians, and hope to continue Mississippi’s forward momentum. Should the people of Mississippi and their elected leaders decide to begin the process of finding a more unifying banner that better represents all Mississippians and the progress we have made as a state, I would support that effort.”
Espy, who in 1986 became the first African American elected to the U.S. House from Mississippi since the Reconstruction Era and later became secretary of agriculture, has for years advocated for a new flag. He is hoping his campaign benefits in November from the current energy behind the effort to change the flag.
Last week Espy was asked to attend a news conference in the state Capitol held by a group of pastors endorsing a flag change.
“First of all what is going on right now with the movement to change the flag is really bigger than the election,” he said. “This moment is unmistakable. I think we as a state need to take advantage of this moment and change the flag.”
But as it relates to the election, he said, “I love what I am seeing. There is an energy for change. I want to be that change in Mississippi.”
Despite the energy that Espy hopes will coalesce behind his campaign, he faces a daunting challenge.
Like Espy, Hyde-Smith is a historic figure in Mississippi politics as the first woman elected to national office. And Republicans, facing difficult Senate elections in other states, will make the re-election of Hyde-Smith a priority as they strive to maintain their Senate majority. But will there be traditional Hyde-Smith supporters, who are strong proponents of the old flag, who stay away from the polls in November because she was not tough enough on the issue of keeping the flag?
Espy will need to ensure a heavy turnout among the state’s African American voters while making inroads with white voters that he was not able to make in 2018.
Espy had planned to spend much of the early part of 2020 traveling the state, meeting people, and trying to build grassroots support among both Black and white Mississippians. The pandemic has forced Espy to a large extent to rely on internet meetings to try to build that support. He is having multiple internet town halls and last week was on an internet conference with 700 Mississippi pastors whom, he said, are supporting his campaign.
Hyde-Smith also has had to deal with the limitations placed on her campaign by the coronavirus but is doing so as the incumbent and the heavy favorite to maintain her seat.
“Yes, we are gearing up the campaign now that the state has reopened,” Hyde-Smith campaign spokesperson Justin Brasell recently said. “She has already held some telephone town halls and we will be opening campaign field offices in the near future.”
The coronavirus is not only impacting campaigning but could affect voter turnout in November.
Despite the threat the coronavirus could pose, it appears the Legislature will not take the steps most other states have taken to enhance early voting, both in person and by mail, to help reduce the long lines at the precincts on election day.
In other words, the coronavirus could negatively impact turnout. In 2018, Hyde-Smith defeated Espy by almost 66,000 votes or 53.6 percent to 46.4 percent.
Whether the energy from the flag or the fear over the COVID-19 crisis could change the outcome remains to be seen.
This column was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics, and culture.
Bobby Harrison is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.