JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi’s 2020 U.S. Senate race has the same top candidates as in 2018 — Republican incumbent Cindy Hyde-Smith and challenger Mike Espy.
The world is different because of the coronavirus pandemic, which puts new emphasis on the candidates’ differences over health care policies.
The election dynamics are also different because this year’s ballot has two items that could increase voter turnout — a presidential race and and a yes-or-no decision about a new Mississippi flag.
Hyde-Smith defeated Espy in a November 2018 special election runoff to fill the final two years of a term started by longtime Republican Sen. Thad Cochran. She received about 54% to Espy’s 46%.
At the time, Hyde-Smith had been in the Senate a few months. She is a former state lawmaker and was in her second term as Mississippi agriculture commissioner when then-Gov. Phil Bryant appointed her to temporarily serve when Cochran retired in early 2018 because of poor health.
Espy assembled a 2018 campaign on short notice, but he was already well known in Mississippi politics. He had been elected to the U.S. House in a Delta district in 1986, becoming the state’s first Black congressman since Reconstruction. In 1993, then-President Bill Clinton chose Espy as U.S. secretary of agriculture. After leaving the Cabinet post in 1994, Espy went back to working as an attorney in private practice.
Hyde-Smith is the first woman to represent Mississippi on Capitol Hill. Espy is trying to become Mississippi’s first Black U.S. senator since Reconstruction.
A Libertarian candidate, Jimmy L. Edwards, is running a low-budget campaign for Senate this year.
Hyde-Smith presents herself as an unshakable supporter of President Donald Trump, and he campaigned for her in Mississippi in 2018.
Espy supports the Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Biden has endorsed Espy in the Senate race.
The Senate candidates have strong differences on health care policy.
Espy says he supports the Affordable Care Act that then-President Barack Obama signed into law in 2010. Espy has also said Mississippi’s rural hospitals are hurting because the Republican-controlled state Legislature has not expanded Medicaid to cover working people who cannot afford private health insurance. Expansion is an option under the Affordable Care Act, but Republican leaders in Mississippi, including Gov. Tate Reeves, have said they don’t want to put more people on a government program.
Hyde-Smith has said she wants Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act, although she and other Republicans recently voted for a bill that would protect part of the law — the requirement for insurers to cover people with pre-existing health conditions. An Oct. 1 news release from Hyde-Smith said the bill was “stalled on party lines,” Republicans voting yes and Democrats voting no.
Espy and Hyde-Smith have taken different paths on the state flag. Amid the national reckoning over racial injustice, Mississippi legislators voted in late June to retire the last state flag that included the Confederate battle emblem.
Espy called on legislators to make the change, telling The Associated Press on June 25: “That flag is ugly. That flag is divisive. That flag is anachronistic. And it hearkens back to an ugly time that I don’t want my children and grandchildren to grow up under.”
Hyde-Smith did not take a stance on whether legislators should surrender the Confederate-themed flag. On June 30, the governor signed a law that retired the old flag and required that a commission design new flag that declares, “In God We Trust.” Hyde-Smith issued a statement that day praising the mandate for the religious phrase.
“By boldly and publicly acknowledging our faith in God, we will continue to show the world the true heart of Mississippi as a state of proud, hardworking, loving, innovative, and God-fearing Americans,” Hyde-Smith said.
Voters will accept or reject a single proposal for a new flag. It features a magnolia, stars and “In God We Trust.”
Espy displayed the proposed new flag at a news conference last week and said he will vote for it because “we have to close a chapter on the old Mississippi.”
Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.