Mike Espy, a Mississippi Democrat whose runoff race with Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith drew national attention last year, announced on Tuesday that he would seek to challenge her again in 2020, setting up a potential rematch of the 2018 special election.
Mr. Espy, a former House member and President Bill Clinton’s agriculture secretary, will try again to become Mississippi’s first black senator since Reconstruction. Ms. Hyde-Smith, who is white, defeated him by almost 8 percentage points in 2018, even after she was heavily criticized for making a comment about a public hanging during the runoff campaign.
Ms. Hyde-Smith, a Republican who was previously the state’s agricultural commissioner, had been appointed to fill the seat vacated by Senator Thad Cochran earlier in the year.
The contest between Mr. Espy, 65, and Ms. Hyde-Smith, 60, was seen as a test of Mississippi’s racial politics, especially after the senator was seen in a video telling a supporter that if he invited her “to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” She later apologized, but only after resisting private appeals to do so from members of her own party.
In a video announcing his 2020 run, Mr. Espy lamented that “too many people are hurting because they can’t find a decent job or because the rural hospital that served them is now closed.” But he also took a jab at Ms. Hyde-Smith, displaying a photo of her and saying, “We can’t continue the change we need if we have a senator who openly laughs about public hangings.”
“Cindy Hyde-Smith is hurting Mississippi, our progress and our reputation,” Mr. Espy said in the video. “That’s why I’m running for Senate. I want us to meet our potential. I want us to be a state that we all can be proud of.”
Representatives from Ms. Hyde-Smith’s Senate office and campaign operation did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Ms. Hyde-Smith’s victory last fall allowed Republicans to breathe a sigh of relief in a deep-red state where they have rarely struggled. She received last-minute support from President Trump, who appeared at two rallies with her the day before voters went to the polls. She had been forced into the runoff with Mr. Espy after no candidate in a four-person race received a majority of the vote earlier in November.
Though Mr. Espy campaigned for months, the contest drew substantial national attention only in its closing weeks. Had Ms. Hyde-Smith not made her remark about public hanging, she would have coasted more easily to victory, Democrats and Republicans said. Instead, the comments gave Mr. Espy and his allies an opening to argue that Ms. Hyde-Smith’s rhetoric was out of step with the present-day values of a state with a history of lynchings of African-Americans.
But her victory reinforced Republicans’ grip on power in the state, where they have won Senate races continuously since the 1980s.
“The reason we won is because Mississippians know me and they know my heart,” Ms. Hyde-Smith said on the night of the runoff. “This win tonight, this victory, it’s about our conservative values, it’s about the things that mean the most to all of us Mississippians: our faith, our family.”
Nonetheless, Mr. Espy’s move to run gives Democrats a strong candidate in the race as they face an uphill climb toward flipping three or four Senate seats in 2020 and taking control of the chamber.
“We came so close in 2018,” Mr. Espy said in his video. “Join me, and this time, we’ll do it.”
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