Democrat Mike Espy, Mississippi’s first black member of Congress since Reconstruction, announced Friday that he will run for the U.S. Senate, joining a crowded field in a closely watched special election this fall.
In a statement, Espy made a centrist pitch, praising Republican Thad Cochran, who recently stepped down from the Senate due to failing health. He called Cochran a “calming voice.”
“It is in this same spirit that I offer my candidacy — to rise above party and partisan wrangling in an effort to appeal to all Mississippians — as we unite to show the nation, at the end of this second decade of the 21st century — just how far we have come,” Espy said.
He also highlighted his family history. “My grandfather’s legacy serves as the foundation of this campaign,” he said. “Born as the son of slaves, Thomas Jefferson Huddleston rose to relative affluence amidst the failed promise of federal Reconstruction.”
Cochran’s retirement triggered a November special election that could factor into the battle for the Senate majority. Republicans are defending a 51-to-49 advantage in the midterms. While Mississippi leans heavily conservative, uncertainty about which Republican will emerge from a pack of candidates has stoked concerns in the party that Democrats might be able to compete for a seat in the South.
Espy served in Congress from 1987 until 1993 and was a secretary of agriculture during Bill Clinton’s presidency. He was forced out of office in 1994 over allegations that he improperly took gifts from businesses and lobbyists. In 1998, he was acquitted of corruption charges.
Another Democrat, Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton, announced this week that he is running.
Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Cindy Hyde-Smith, a fellow Republican who has served as the state agriculture and commerce commissioner, to succeed Cochran. She is also running in the special election. But party leaders are unsure about her candidacy. President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wanted Bryant to appoint himself.
Mainstream GOP leaders have worried about state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a hard-right candidate who has criticized McConnell. McDaniel narrowly lost to Cochran in a 2014 GOP primary that was one of the nastiest congressional contests in recent history.
There will be no partisan primaries before the Nov. 6 election. Instead, all the candidates will appear on one ballot. If no one gets a majority, the top two finishers will advance to a runoff regardless of party affiliation. GOP leaders worry that McDaniel’s controversial platform could alienate centrist voters in a potential runoff against a Democrat.
Mississippi is one of two states that will have two Senate races on the ballot this year. Republican Sen. Roger Wicker is running for reelection and is a heavy favorite to hold his seat. The other state is Minnesota, where two seats held by Democrats will be up when voters head to the polls.
Veteran Democratic strategist Joe Trippi is working for Espy’s campaign. Trippi worked for the campaign of Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, who defied long odds to claim a Senate seat in last year’s special election in Alabama, another Republican-leaning state.
Jones’s strategy of forming a coalition of African American voters and centrist Republicans worked, propelling him past Republican Roy Moore. Espy appears to be adopting a similar approach in Mississippi.
Mississippi has a higher percentage of African American residents than Alabama. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Mississippi is nearly 38 percent African American. Alabama is nearly 27 percent African American.