He seemingly had the political wind at his back. He ran a surprisingly competitive race in 2018 against an appointed US Senator that candidly stumbled a bit down the home stretch. Mike Espy tried to run more of a “Democrat lite” campaign in the technically non partisan 2018 contest by saying he would “rise above party and partisan wrangling”. He vowed to return and avenge the 7 point loss.
In the meantime, former Attorney General Jim Hood ran a 2019 gubernatorial campaign that tried as best he could to run away from national Democrats. His campaign brain trust talked about “threading the needle” with rural white voters, much to liberals chagrin. Hood’s campaign could never solve the intractable math problem that faced it, and he got beat by Tate Reeves by 5 points. But still Democrats in Mississippi felt like they were “getting closer”.
And then . . .
Mike Espy threw his hat in the ring for Senate in 2020 and proceeded to raise and blow a record $10 million campaign funding haul placed on a straight bet that Mississippians would support a nationalized Democrat campaign openly aligned with Obama, Biden, Pelosi, Booker, Abrams, etc. In the modern political era, that had never been tried here. Money was no object. Espy sported a 3:1+ cash advantage mostly from out of state donors. “Expert” staff and the best political consultants, pollsters and media buyers, mostly from out of state with no nexus or background to Mississippi politics, were hired. They ran their plays, but things went bad on Election Night 2020. With the super high turnout that he said he wanted, he got blown out by double digits.
Of course, Espy’s case wasn’t unusual of deep south Democrats on Election Night. His loss wasn’t about race or Mississippi “not being ready for a black US Senator”. Incumbent US Senator Doug Jones, aligned with the national party, got blown out by former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville by a 60/40 margin. Tom Cotton (AR), Bill Haggerty (TN) and Bill Cassidy (LA) put up similar gaudy numbers against their challengers, some black and some white. Of course, the brutal truth is that there are very few swing voters anymore in federal elections. In the South, that’s no different. Meanwhile, Mississippians by an overwhelming majority affirmed changes to two century old political relics – a new state flag that didn’t feature a confederate emblem and a constitutional provision on election process that traced its roots to Jim Crow laws.
The bottom line was that Espy simply picked a losing campaign strategy.
Earlier in the summer when Espy’s real 2020 partisan campaign strategy came into focus, Frank Corder openly asked the question if Espy was in fact trying to tank the Mississippi contest in order to parlay his long-shot nationally aligned candidacy into a prospective spot in a Joe Biden administration. He was after all a former Secretary of Agriculture, but had exited the Clinton administration after being indicted and ultimately acquitted for bribery charges. But several companies and individuals pleaded guilty in the scheme to provide gifts to Espy and millions in fines and years of jailtime including to close aides were meted out. Even though Corder was poo-pooed by the media elites for saying that out loud, no other scenarios for Espy’s 2020 campaign strategy made political sense. Running a national “elephants and donkeys” campaign in Mississippi was and apparently remains political malpractice. It’s just bad math.
A dive into the numbers on election night told the tale early. Espy got blown out everywhere. He outpolled Biden in Mississippi by less than 3 points (as of this writing). His 2018 vote totals eroded in traditionally Democrat counties. He mostly lost ground in vote rich counties and suburban areas. He lost major ground in Trump country. He even lost his home county of Madison by 12 points (that was won by Jim Hood a year earlier).
In short, it could not have gone any worse for Espy. Simultaneously, Hyde-Smith was essentially affirmed by Mississippi voters after two years in the US Senate after being a reliably conservative vote, which is usually something that helps in a Mississippi statewide election.
The media establishment beclowned themselves over Espy
Probably one of the most entertaining parts of the cycle was watching Mississippi’s media establishment try to outdo themselves to back Espy and bash Hyde-Smith. The Mississippi media for the second time in two years demonstrated how utterly disconnected they remain from the state that they cover. Politically, there is precious little talent for understanding Mississippi’s electorate or analyzing voter/campaign data. But, bless their hearts, it didn’t stop them from trying.
We are statistically tied with @CindyHydeSmith. We have MOMENTUM on our side. We can WIN today.
— Mike Espy (@MikeEspyMS) November 3, 2020
And media was all too eager to uncritically hop on board and amplify.
That fueled a seemingly coordinated effort from the campaign to capitalize on the bogus polls.
In March, we were 25 points behind @CindyHydeSmith. Now, we are just 1 point down.
The momentum is on our side. We can WIN this in 13 days. https://t.co/4ggLCTFhcA
— Mike Espy (@MikeEspyMS) October 21, 2020
It’s just a disinformation game in which Mississippi and national media players were cooperating patsies.
And down the home stretch, it got even more ridiculous with stories that didn’t meet the straight face test featuring spooky-sounding “Republican anonymous sources” and fawning stories that looked like Espy campaign ads from “non partisan” media sites with absolutely no counterbalance or context whatsoever.
And I could go on and on and on.
How bad was it?
But just to put it all in historical perspective, here’s what Espy’s vote total looks like relative to other statewide Democrat races of note.
Robert Gray (Governor 2015) – 231,643 (32.25%)
David Baria (Senate 2018) – 369,567 (39.47%)
Jim Hood (Governor 2019) – 414,368 (46.83%)
Mike Espy (Senate 2018) – 420,819 (46.37%)
Mike Espy (Senate 2020) – 473,524 (42.1% currently)
Albert Gore (Senate 2012) – 503,467 (40.55%)
Espy in 2020 spent about as much as the other aforementioned campaigns mentioned combined yet had only marginally better results. Espy will likely marginally eclipse Albert Gore’s turnout when all the votes are counted statewide, but not by enough to justify the $10,000,000 difference in their campaigns.
What you’ll hear next
Over the next few days, you’ll hear Mississippi media start giving a lot of excuses for Espy’s loss. The media is invested heavily in that narrative. Because their analysis/advocacy has been so wrong/ineffective this cycle, they’re going to essentially blame voters for making a bad decision so their analysis/advocacy won’t look so bad. They’ll claim that Democrats will be buoyed by all of the voter data Espy got, but negate the fact that the GOP gathered the same in a blowout win. They’ll bemoan Hyde-Smith’s “poor campaign”. But the truth of the matter is that Mississippi voters spoke pretty loudly that they think that through an unsuccessful impeachment, a global pandemic and a Supreme Court confirmation, that Hyde-Smith is essentially doing the job that Mississippians want her to do.
But again, don’t go looking for that narrative in any other Mississippi media outlets. I can promise that you won’t find it.