(CN) – Democrat Mike Espy on Tuesday announced his run for the Mississippi Senate seat he sought in a tight special election last year, setting up a potential 2020 rematch with Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith, who was dogged by controversy for a remark expressing a willingness to attend a public hanging.
Espy, 65, rose to national prominence after being elected the state’s first African-American congressman in 1986, before going on to serve as secretary of agriculture under President Bill Clinton. He said in a video announcing his candidacy Tuesday that he was running for the U.S. Senate because progress in Mississippi “is still too slow.”
“And 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. Cindy Hyde-Smith is hurting Mississippi, our progress and our reputation,” Espy said in the nearly three-minute video.
Hyde-Smith, a former state agriculture commissioner appointed to fill the late Senator Thad Cochran’s seat on an interim basis, defeated Espy by nearly 8 percentage points in the 2018 special election, becoming Mississippi’s first woman elected to Congress.
She had been expected to easily cruise to victory in the conservative state that President Donald Trump carried by 18 points in 2016, but allegations of racism shifted focus to her background and the state’s own history of racial discrimination and lynching.
The controversy ignited after a video surfaced showing Hyde-Smith joking about her willingness to attend a public hanging, telling a crowd about a political supporter: “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”
She later apologized, but Espy’s campaign seized the opportunity to turn the remarks into momentum. He received last-minute support from prominent Democratic figures and national fundraising groups pumping enthusiasm and cash into the tighter-than-expected race.
But even help from President Barack Obama wasn’t enough to mobilize Democratic voters to push Espy across the finish line. Mississippi has not elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1982 and has never elected a black senator since the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War.
“We came so close in 2018. Join me, this time we’ll do it,” Espy said in his video.
Hyde-Smith said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that she looks forward to the race.
“As the 2020 campaign approaches, I look forward to discussing once again with Mississippi voters our vision for the best ways to move our state and country forward,” she said. “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.”
Trump endorsed Hyde-Smith’s reelection bid on Twitter in July.
She is serving out the remainder of Cochran’s term through 2021. Cochran resigned in April 2018 due to health issues, and passed away this year.