Hyde-Smith, 61, has held the seat since winning a special election in 2018, when she also ran and won against Espy. She is the first female senator in the state.
Espy, 66, was the first Black congressman in Mississippi and the first Black secretary of agriculture, under President Bill Clinton. If elected, Espy would have been the first Black senator in Mississippi since Reconstruction.
Black residents make up 38% of the state’s population, the highest of any state, and they overwhelmingly vote Democratic. (Washington, D.C., is higher, but it is not a state ― although it should be.)
But Mississippi is still considered solid red territory and hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate in nearly 40 years ― and they were segregationists.
Some Republicans were frustrated that the race was as close as it was. Hyde-Smith was a weak fundraiser, bringing in less than $3 million through the beginning of October. That was, as Mississippi Today noted, “less money raised during the 2020 campaign cycle than any sitting U.S. senator who isn’t retiring.”
Hyde-Smith has kept a relatively low profile in the Senate, but she’s a loyal supporter of Donald Trump and has played up her ties to him. She was also a vocal supporter of the president during the impeachment proceedings. Trump endorsed her in late October.
Hyde-Smith declared her race as “the conservative versus someone who is quite liberal,” even though Espy is known as more of a moderate.
In 2018, Hyde-Smith faced blowback after she joked that she’d love to attend a “public hanging” ― in a state with a history of lynchings. News reports also found that she attended a “segregation academy” in the 1970s and has repeatedly defended Confederate supporters.
Espy had an energized Democratic Party and more experience against Hyde-Smith under his belt this time around, but it still wasn’t quite enough to defeat the GOP.
“It’s nothing like what should be happening in a race like this,” he added.
But after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 18, Democrats nationwide began pouring money into Senate races ― including Espy’s. His campaign announced that within days, Espy had “raised five times more than Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith did during the entire second quarter.”
Former President Barack Obama recorded a radio ad for him, and he received fundraising help from Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.
“A vote for Mike Espy is a vote for failed Obama policies. It’s that simple,” Hyde-Smith said in response to the endorsement.
In 2018, the Clarion-Ledger reported that Espy was largely avoiding talking about any controversial issues, including race, and said his campaign was “just keeping our head down.”
This time, race was at the center of his campaign.
“It’s just a different time,” Espy told HuffPost in September. “We’ve got George Floyd. He’s been murdered. Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. We have, in our face, cases of police misconduct and violations when you consider the issues of social justice. So a candidate for Senate living in these times, if you’re serious and really want to serve the people, you can’t ignore these issues.”
But Espy also said that in his last campaign, he didn’t connect with young people and give them a reason to vote for him. He said he felt that they couldn’t identify with the “gray-headed, 64-year-old guy” because he wasn’t relating to them and telling his story.
Espy shared how he integrated his high school in 1968 as one of just 18 Black students among 800 white students. He said he had to fight every day, was called the n-word, and even teachers cursed at him and sprayed him with a fire extinguisher. As a senior, he led a walkout to protest that the school wasn’t hiring Black teachers.