While campaigning Monday in Mississippi for Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith’s reelection, President Trump dismissed her Democratic competitor Mike Espy as being too liberal to represent the state, and raised eyebrows by questioning whether Espy “fit in” there.
“Oh, he’s far left. He’s out there. How does he fit in in Mississippi?” Trump said of Espy, a former congressman and U.S. secretary of agriculture. Trump went on to describe Espy’s political positions on a host of issues that are hot on the right.
But Espy’s political and personal narrative suggest that he’s hardly an outsider in the Magnolia State.
Espy was born in Mississippi to an influential family that helped build multiple businesses including funeral homes, a newspaper and a hospital. Espy established his legal career in Mississippi before eventually becoming the first African American to represent the state in Congress since Reconstruction.
Espy is a Democrat who has advocated for liberal policies, including abortion rights and the Earned Income Tax Credit benefiting low-income families, at some of the highest levels of government. But he launched his campaign as a centrist willing to vote against Democrats and has reminded voters that he often worked with Republicans during his time in Congress. He was a Cabinet secretary in the Clinton administration, which is generally considered more of a centrist administration than one on the far left.
But engaged Mississippi voters know this, and it’s possible that Trump does, as well. So was the president’s suggestion that Espy might not fit in Mississippi more about identity than policy? After all, this isn’t the first time in this campaign cycle that Trump has used questionable language to diminish a black candidate.
Such was the case with Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, whom Trump called unqualified in her quest to be the first black woman governor in the country, and Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, who the president called a thief during his attempt to become Florida’s first black governor.
Trump views Mississippi as a red state that he won in 2016 and that is largely run by politicians who support him and his ideas. And he’s largely right. If Trumpism is going to continue to have a stronghold on the South, Trump knows that people of color — and particularly black Americans, the group that consistently disapproves most of Trump — cannot occupy top seats in government.
And many of his supporters who backed him because of their own anxiety about changes in American culture — specifically when it comes to race — agree. Mississippi may have the largest percentage of black residents in the United States, but the state remains predominantly white, mostly Christian, largely rural and among the least-educated states in the United States. And Trump does well with people who fall into these categories.
To Trump and many of his supporters, Espy simply is the wrong fit for holding one of Mississippi’s Senate seats. The question is whether that’s because of his political views.