HATTIESBURG, Miss.—U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a likely 2020 presidential candidate, traveled to Mississippi on Monday to campaign for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mike Espy.
“When your country calls, you stand up and serve, and he went into an election where people didn’t give him a chance, and he drove it to a runoff,” the New Jersey Democrat told a filled-to-capacity room of students and supporters at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Espy earned a spot in a top-two runoff on Nov. 27 with appointed incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith on Nov. 6, knocking Republican Mississippi State Sen. Chris McDaniel out of the race.
“He says, ‘You know what? We need to solve problems,’” Booker told the crowd of Espy. “‘We need to fix things. And they aren’t Democratic or Republican problems.’”
Though Mississippi is deep red, it is the state with the highest African American population in the country at 38 percent, and Espy would be the first black U.S. senator from the state since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.
Booker highlighted Espy’s position on health care, including his support for the Affordable Care Act and its pre-existing conditions provision.
“It is wrong in America for somebody to be denied health insurance because of a pre-existing condition,” Booker said to applause.
Though Hyde-Smith says she supports protecting people with pre-existing conditions against discrimination, she has called for the full repeal of “Obamacare,” a moniker for the ACA. In a press release earlier this month, she announced her support for a bill she says would protect people with pre-existing conditions even if the ACA is repealed.
While that bill would prevent insurance companies from charging people with pre-existing conditions more for coverage, it would also allow them to deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions outright. Mississippi’s other U.S. senator, Roger Wicker, also supports the bill.
Booker said not to assume the race in Mississippi is a “lost cause.”
"Do not assume that this election does not matter,” he said. “Do not assume it is a lost cause. We are Americans. We have gone into lost cause after lost cause after lost cause and we have shown that this country's very testimony, very truth, very history, is a shining example of the perpetual achievement of the impossible. We are Americans, and our country hangs in the balance right now, and the fulcrum for it is this election in Mississippi.”
Booker, one of just three currently serving U.S. senators who are black, previously campaigned for Espy in July. California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris campaigned with Espy in Jackson on Saturday.
Trump Coming After Hanging, Voter Prevention Videos
On Nov. 26, President Donald Trump will travel to Mississippi to campaign for Hyde-Smith at two rallies in Tupelo and Biloxi. Trump’s election-eve visit comes as Hyde-Smith faces scrutiny over two videos that sparked bipartisan statewide outrage.
One video published by the Bayou Brief on Nov. 11 revealed comments Hyde-Smith made at a Tupelo campaign stop on Nov. 2, in which she told a cattle rancher that, if he invited her to a “public hanging,” she “would be on the front row.”
The video drew sharp criticism because Mississippi historically had the highest rate of lynchings of African Americans. It drew rebuke from the likes of Democratic Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, Democratic Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson, conservative Mississippi Tea Party Chairwoman Laura Van Overschelde and the NAACP.
On Nov. 15, Bayou Brief published a second video. In that clip, Hyde-Smith seems to call voter suppression a “good idea.”
“And then they remind me that there’s a lot of liberal folks in those schools who maybe we don’t want to vote,” Hyde-Smith says. “Maybe we can make it just a little more difficult. And I think that's a great idea.”
Hyde-Smith Communications Director Melissa Scallan told the Jackson Free Press on Nov. 15 that the comment was a joke and that Hyde-Smith was referring to the idea of putting polling places on college campuses a “great idea”—not “(making) it just a little more difficult” to vote.
Republicans hope Trump’s visit will stymie the bleeding, but the videos’ publication has GOP officials worried that they could lose another Senate seat in a solid red Deep South state. The New York Times reported Monday morning that Hyde-Smith’s internal polls revealed Espy had narrowed the race to within just five points—an unusually close election for a state that has not sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in nearly four decades.
Hyde-Smith Faces Espy in Debate Tonight, Runoff on Nov. 27
Tonight, Mississippi Farm Bureau will host Espy and Hyde-Smith for a U.S. Senate debate that will be broadcast on WLBT, WLOX and radio stations statewide at 7 p.m. It will be the first U.S. Senate debate in Mississippi in 10 years. The debate will last one hour and will be closed to the public and all media, except the moderator and panelists.
No matter who wins, the Nov. 27 runoff will be historic. When Gov. Phil Bryant appointed her, Hyde-Smith became the first woman to represent Mississippi in Congress and could be the first duly elected come November. If Espy wins, he would be the first black U.S. senator from the state since Reconstruction, when Sens. Hiram Revels and Blanche K. Bruce represented the state in Washington, D.C., until the end of Reconstruction brought the disenfranchisement of black voters.
Anyone who registered to vote by Oct. 29 will be eligible to vote in the runoff, even if they could not vote in the Nov. 6 election. Voters must have a valid form of photo ID, such as a driver's license or student ID. The Secretary of State's website has a full list of acceptable forms of ID. Polls are open in Mississippi from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Ashton Pittman covers politics and elections for the Jackson Free Press. Follow him on Twitter at @ashtonpittman. Email him at [email protected]. Read more 2018 campaign coverage at jacksonfreepress.com/2018elections.