Come Nov. 3, eligible Starkville voters of all ages and races will be turning out to the polls for the highly anticipated 2020 election. However, Donald Trump and Joe Biden will not be the only names on their ballots. Mississippi voters will be choosing between Democratic candidate Mike Espy and Republican incumbent candidate Cindy Hyde-Smith to represent Mississippi in the U.S. Senate.
Both candidates grew up in Mississippi, have experience in the legislature, have backgrounds in agriculture and even have a line in Mississippi history books as being the "first" for the state's representation on the federal level.
Mike Espy, the former secretary of agriculture under Bill Clinton and a former Mississippi congressman, was the first African American elected to serve Mississippi at the federal level since the Reconstruction era. Cindy Hyde-Smith, the former Mississippi commissioner of agriculture and commerce, is the first woman to represent Mississippi in Congress.
However, while each candidate is dedicated to bettering their home state, they differ in their paths to the same goal.
According to his campaign website, Democratic candidate Espy's main platform points include expanding Medicaid, expanding broadband access across the state, expanding job training and work programs to prevent "brain drain," working to obtain more federal funding for small businesses and working to obtain more funding to better the public-school system.
According to her campaign website, Republican incumbent Cindy Hyde-Smith supports tax cuts, reducing federal regulations on small businesses and farmers, implementing legislation that allows for the growth of the agriculture industry, repealing the Affordable Care Act and strengthening enforcement of U.S. immigration laws.
This year's election is not the first time the two have gone head-to-head. In a 2018 special election after the resignation of former senator Thad Cochran, Espy and Hyde-Smith ran against each other, with Hyde-Smith winning the senate seat.
While a lot has changed in the U.S. and Mississippi in the last two years, Dallas Breen, director of Mississippi State university's John C. Stennis Institute of Government and Community Development, said he does not predict much difference in the outcome of the 2020 Senate election. Without a veritable scandal on the hands of the Republican candidate, Breen said the Republican majority in the state will still have enough margin to win, even if it is a closer race.
"I think Mike Espy really does have his hands full. It's not to say he doesn't stand a chance," Breen said. "A Democratic challenger in the climate of Mississippi right now stands a very uphill battle to try to unseat a Republican incumbent in the Senate," Breen said.
Georgie Swan, president of the College Democrats student group on campus and a senior studying political science and psychology, said she recognized the state's red majority, but even a robust show of support for Espy could begin turning the tide for Democrats in the state.
"I think the Democrats can get a Senate seat. I would love if it would be Espy this time, but I think just a higher turnout of Democrats would be good in the long run," Swan said.
Swan said she thinks Espy is a good representative of the Democratic Party's ideals, and she is excited to see the results of his campaign.
"Mike Espy — he's running a really strong campaign. He's been getting some national attention; he's been supported and endorsed by Barack Obama. So I think he's run a really good campaign and is a strong Democratic candidate," Swan said.
Of Republican opponent Cindy Hyde-Smith, Swan said her biggest strength was her experience in agriculture, but that she would not vote for her because she does not believe Hyde-Smith represents all Mississippians.
"The reason I can never support her as a candidate or a person is her comment about she would be front row at a public hanging, and there's pictures of her dressed up in Confederate outfits. I think knowing the history of Mississippi and the race relations — that just reflects negatively on the state," Swan said.
College Republicans Chairman Jonathan Bailey, a junior studying public relations and political science, said he also respected the strength of Espy's campaign and his experience in agriculture, but that at the end of the day, his economic policies are not what Mississippi needs to regain a strong economy.
"There's not a way to fund some of these more liberal programs that they have kind of talked about in what they might do if they really had a majority without raising taxes, not just on billionaires or millionaires but on middle class folks and really everybody above the poverty line," Bailey said.
One of the main contention points between the two candidates is their different stances on expanding Medicaid in Mississippi. Espy is a proponent of expansion while Hyde-Smith is not.
Stennis Institute Director Breen said this issue involves the crux of the debate between liberals and conservatives and comes down to a voter's personal political ideals.
"The expansion of Medicaid to help people will help, could help, thousands and thousands of people, but it's going to come at a cost— and that becomes the debate point amongst people is at what cost," Breen said.
Bailey said he believes Hyde-Smith has done a good job in her two years in the Senate and will continue to do so if re-elected.
"I think she's done a great job in the Senate of maintaining the conservative voice which I think Mississippi needs. We are the most Republican state in the nation by some people's counts, and so, I think it's important that we have a strong conservative like Cindy representing us in D.C.," Bailey said.
Breen has met both Espy and Hyde-Smith in person, citing Hyde-Smith's dedication to talking to MSU students and welcoming them in D.C.
Swan said the College Democrats recently hosted Espy as a virtual speaker, and she was struck with how "down to earth" he was.
While the Senate election is less flashy than the presidential race, Breen said it has an even more direct effect on the daily lives of students, and encouraged students to educate themselves and get out and vote.
"People don't realize your congressmen and women, senators, they have an impact on the long-term legislation that goes in and impacts you as a student as you go through your student career and as you enter into the workforce," Breen said.
This project was produced with support from a grant from the American Press Institute.