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Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mike Espy and his wife, Portia Espy, met then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama when he was first running for president, as seen here in 2008. Today, the now-former president endorsed Espy’s campaign for U.S. Senate in Mississippi. Photo courtesy Espy campaign.

Obama Endorses Espy as Trump Renews Support for Hyde-Smith Amid Looming Health Care Decision

Four months ago, the Mississippi Legislature finally retired its Confederate-themed 1894 state flag—a relic of the post-Reconstruction era when white supremacist leaders used their power to systemically undo the gains that Black Mississippians had made since the end of the Civil War. Today, former President Barack Obama cited that progress and urged the Magnolia State to do something it has not done since Reconstruction: Elect a Black man to the U.S. Senate.

“Mike Espy has a great chance to win this election for the Senate and keep Mississippi moving forward,” the nation’s first Black president says in a new radio ad endorsing the Democratic nominee, who himself made history as the first Black candidate from Mississippi to win a federal office since Reconstruction when voters elected him to the U.S. House in 1986.

“You were finally able to change the flag. Now, you can change your senator, too,” Obama says in the new radio ad out this morning, referring to incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith.

In a statement today, Espy, who served as U.S. secretary of agriculture under former President Bill Clinton, said he was “honored” to have Obama’s endorsement. 

“President Barack Obama governed with dignity and effectiveness. He is remembered and will continue to be remembered as a very good president,” the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate said.

Trump: ‘Vote for Cindy’

Shortly after Espy announced Obama’s endorsement, U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith sent a critical tweet.

“A vote for Mike Espy is a vote for failed Obama policies. It’s that simple,” Hyde-Smith wrote, without elaborating on which policies she was describing.

Within hours, though, Hyde-Smith was touting her own renewed endorsement from President Donald Trump, who made three trips to Mississippi to support her special-election campaign for the seat in 2018. Gov. Phil Bryant appointed her to the seat when it became vacant that year, and she beat Espy in a runoff by seven points

“Cindy’s opponent, Mike Espy, is a Corrupt Politician who will Raise your Taxes and Open your Borders! Vote for Cindy,” Trump tweeted today.

Trump often refers to political opponents as “crooked” or “corrupt,” but Hyde-Smith recently invoked Espy’s 1997 indictment on allegations that he accepted illegal gifts from companies during his time as agriculture secretary.

“The difference between us, number one, I’ve never been indicted. He has,” Hyde-Smith told WAPT News 16 earlier this month.

But a jury acquitted Espy of all charges in 1997. During the 2018 special election, the Democrat told this reporter in an interview for another publication that he “refused all plea bargains because I was innocent.”

“Now, if (opponents) want to raise all this again, they can, but I can only say this: It doesn’t matter what they call you; it only matters what you answer to. I answer to exonerated,” he said in August 2018.

Trump Credits Hyde-Smith for Bill Predating Her Tenure

Despite Trump’s assertion today, Espy has not called for raising taxes on Americans broadly. Joe Biden, who endorsed Espy earlier this year, has vowed to raise taxes on those making more than $400,000 a year if he wins the presidency. Last year, Espy criticized Trump’s 2017 tax cut bill after The Washington Post reported U.S. billionaires paid a lower tax rate than the working class for the first time in history after its passage

U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, seen here at a 2018 White House meeting with President Donald Trump, thanked him for his renewed support today after he urged Mississippi supporters to “vote for Cindy!” Photo courtesy White House

In his tweet, Trump falsely claimed that Hyde-Smith helped “cut your taxes,” referring to the 2017 tax cuts, which mostly benefited the wealthiest Americans—including many members of Congress from both parties, though no Democrats voted for it. But Hyde-Smith was still Mississippi’s agriculture secretary at the time the U.S. Senate passed that bill, and did not join the U.S. Senate until months later in 2018.

The incumbent U.S. senator did not attempt to correct Trump today.

“Thank you for your support @realdonaldtrump,” she wrote, quoting his erroneous tweet.

Of Guns and Borders

Despite Trump’s claims, Espy, like Biden, has not voiced support for “open borders.” He has criticized some of Trump’s immigration policies, though, which Hyde-Smith says she supports.

“The Trump administration is deporting immigrant children with cancer who came to the United States for medical care. It’s cruelty for cruelty’s sake,” Espy tweeted in August 2018, referring to a story in Vanity Fair. That same month, he also used the platform to criticize the administration’s ICE raids at Mississippi poultry plants.

Hyde-Smith has backed some pro-gun legislation, including the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act.

“This legislation would honor the rights of law-abiding gun owners with concealed carry permits in other states with right-to-carry laws,” Hyde-Smith said in a statement last year. “This practical, pro-Second Amendment legislation recognizes states’ authority to issue firearms licenses and permits, while supporting the rights of gun owners.”

On Oct. 15, Hyde-Smith cited her support for the bill as one of “100 Accomplishments in 100 Days,” even though the bill has languished in the Senate for more than two years without becoming law.

Despite Trump’s criticisms of her opponent on guns, Espy supports gun ownership and said in 2018 that he owns guns himself. As a member of Congress in the 1980s and early 1990s, he was a member of the National Rifle Association, which gifted him their “Silver Rifle” award in 1988 for his pro-gun voting record. The Democratic Senate candidate says he believes the organization has become too extreme in recent years, though, and he now supports what he calls “sensible gun safety” laws, including universal background checks and limits on magazine capacity.

Espy’s top issue this year, though, is health care.

‘Obamacare Is the Worst Thing That Happened to Us’

“I’m worried about the 600,000 Mississippians who could be denied coverage or charged more just because they have a pre-existing condition,” Espy said in a statement in late September, referring to a Trump-backed U.S. Supreme Court case that could overturn the Affordable Care Act’s health-care protections. “Sen. Hyde-Smith has made clear that her only health care goal is to return us to the dark days when anyone with a pre-existing condition was denied coverage.”

During her 2018 debate with Espy, Hyde-Smith declared that “Obamacare is the worst thing that happened to us,” referring to the Affordable Care Act. Still, the senator said she “strongly believes in pre-existing conditions,” referring to patient protections like those in the Affordable Care Act that would be struck if the U.S. Supreme Court decides to invalidate the law as the Trump administration is requesting.

Despite her vocal support for keeping pre-existing conditions protections, Hyde-Smith is supporting the Trump administration’s effort to invalidate the entire law. Neither Hyde-Smith nor other Republicans have proposed legislation to reinstate pre-existing conditions protections if the court strikes them down.

In 2017, Trump supported a bill to end ACA protections that allowed states to let insurers charge people with pre-existing conditions higher prices. The bill died in a late-night vote after three Republicans defected. In September, Trump signed a symbolic executive order that he said would protect people with pre-existing conditions from health care-discrimination

But the order simply affirmed support for the protections Obama signed into law a decade ago—the same rules the Trump administration is now urging the Supreme Court to overturn.

Espy’s top issue on the campaign trail is affordable health care, which he says an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case could jeopardize. Photo courtesy Espy campaign

Hours after his endorsement became official, Obama touched on the issue, criticizing Trump and other Republicans’ repeated claims over much of the last decade that he would soon offer a superior plan to replace the Affordable Care Act.

“It’s been coming in two weeks for the last 10 years. Where is it? Where is this great plan to replace Obamacare? They’ve had 10 years to do it,” he said at the rally. “They don’t have one.”

Espy’s decision to announce Obama’s endorsement today marked a difference from other Mississippi Democrats in recent years, who sought to distance themselves from the first Black president to appeal to white moderate and conservative voters in the state. In 2019, Democratic candidate for governor Jim Hood, the state’s former attorney general, declined to confirm knowledge of last-minute robocalls Obama had recorded for him to help turn out Democratic voters.

Since her appointment in 2018, Hyde-Smith has touted her support for Trump’s agenda as one of her top campaign highlights, claiming throughout the last election that she voted with him “100% of the time.” Since, she has broken with him on only a handful of votes, FiveThirtyEight’s congressional tracker shows.

Already, more Mississippians have requested absentee ballots for the 2020 election than during the entirety of the 2016 race. By Sunday, 120,000 Mississippians had requested absentee ballots compared to an overall total of just 110,000 four years ago.

Mississippi Voting Information

Mississippi voters may vote absentee in-person at their local circuit clerk’s office until 5 p.m. on Oct. 31. Those voting by mail must request their ballot by Oct. 24 and have until Election Day, Nov. 3, to mail their ballot. The ballot must be postmarked by Nov. 3 and arrive within five days of the election in order for their vote to count.

Polls are open on Election Day, Nov. 3, from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. More information on absentee and Election Day voting procedures and COVID-19 safety precautions is available at sos.ms.gov/vote.

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