Democrat Mike Espy starts 2020 US Senate bid in Mississippi

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi Democrat Mike Espy announced Tuesday that he's running again for U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Cindy Hyde-Smith, setting up a 2020 rematch of a race that churned up the state's painful racist history.

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"I can and will do a better job for the people of Mississippi and the United States," Espy told supporters by email, after telegraphing the move for months.

Espy is a former U.S. House member and former U.S. agriculture secretary. He lost the November 2018 special election to fill the last two years of retired Republican Sen. Thad Cochran's six-year term.

Hyde-Smith was Mississippi's agriculture commissioner when Republican Gov. Phil Bryant appointed her to temporarily succeed Cochran in the spring of 2018. She is the first woman to represent Mississippi in Congress.

The 2018 campaign was rocked by a video showing Hyde-Smith, who is white, praising a supporter by saying she'd attend a "public hanging" if he invited her. She called it an "exaggerated expression of regard."

The comment made Mississippi's history of lynching a central theme in the campaign. Espy mentioned those remarks in his announcement video, emphasizing his pathbreaking role as Mississippi's first black congressman since Reconstruction.

"We can't continue the change we need if we have a senator who openly laughs about public hangings and makes statements supporting voter suppression," Espy said. "Cindy-Hyde Smith is hurting Mississippi — our progress and our reputation — and we simply must replace her."

If elected, Espy would become Mississippi's first African American U.S. senator since Reconstruction. In the video, he says his great-grandparents were slaves brought to Mississippi from Georgia and Virginia. Their son, his grandfather, founded Mississippi's first hospital for African Americans.

Espy told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday that he believes he can win by building a diverse coalition of voters. He said his campaign hired a firm to analyze which precincts can be flipped from Republican to Democrat.

"We're going after everybody — white, black, Democrat, persuadable Republican, persuadable moderates and those in the middle," Espy said. "But I know where they are now. I'm not flying blind."

Espy says he wants to reduce poverty, make health care more affordable, increase well-paying jobs, improve schools and end President Donald Trump's trade war that's pressuring farmers financially.

Candidates' qualifying begins Jan. 2, and Mississippi's U.S. House, Senate and presidential primaries are March 10. If primary runoffs are needed, they will be March 31, leaving a long stretch until the November general election.

It's unclear if Hyde-Smith will have any opposition in the Republican primary. During her time in office, Hyde-Smith has focused on rural issues and remained loyal to Trump.

In a statement released through her campaign spokesman, Hyde-Smith said she looks forward to discussing her vision to move Mississippi and the country forward.

"I'm proud to have helped lead efforts to transform our federal courts with conservative judges, improve border security, continue modernizing our military, and pass pro-growth policies that have created new jobs and better wages," Hyde-Smith said.

Espy's announcement comes a week after Democrat Jim Hood lost the governor's race to Republican Tate Reeves, highlighting continuing weakness for Democrats in Mississippi. More voters turned out for the runoff between Espy and Hyde-Smith than for the 2019 general election, and other Democrats also lost badly in statewide races.

As he did in the 2018 campaign, Espy said he'll be independent and put Mississippi's needs over loyalty to a party.

"Too often, our current senator puts party over country instead of doing what's best for our state and even our national security," Espy said in his statement.

Trump campaigned for Hyde-Smith in Mississippi in 2018, and he praised her when he held a rally Nov. 1 in Tupelo, days ahead of the gubernatorial election. Hyde-Smith was at that rally with Reeves and other Republicans.

"Cindy Hyde-Smith — she's incredible," Trump said. "She's tough and smart and strong, and she's with us all the way."

Hyde-Smith is likely to have a substantial financial advantage over Espy. Federal Election Commission documents show Espy raised $100,000 through Sept. 30 and had $131,000 on hand, while Hyde-Smith raised nearly $1 million and had $583,000 on hand.

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Jeff Amy reported from Atlanta.