Like Mr. Jones in the Alabama Senate race, Mr. Espy has tried to focus his campaign on health care policy and securing federal funds for the state.
His candidacy has given the party a standard-bearer with name recognition and fund-raising prowess in a state where Democrats seldom contest Senate races. As he knocked on doors Sunday in Jackson, Mr. Espy, who is from nearby Yazoo City, ran into residents who had attended his same church, as well as the wife of his former barber, and a few who didn’t recognize him on sight.
Mr. Espy’s advisers have told political donors that they believe he needs to mobilize black voters in force and win about a quarter of white voters to defeat Ms. Hyde-Smith, a near-herculean task in a state where the two political parties are split chiefly along racial lines. Mr. Espy carried just 15 percent of whites on Nov. 6, according to exit polls.
“A big section of black voters would have to turn out, like 2008 with Barack Obama,” said Jarvis Dortch, a Democratic state representative in a Jackson-area district who called the task difficult, but not impossible. “We’re going to have to see moderate white folks in Mississippi, enough of them, say: That’s not how we want to be represented; that’s not how we want to be depicted.”
This is where Mr. Espy’s supporters hope the controversial statements by Ms. Hyde-Smith have created a political opening. Last week, a second video was released, in which Ms. Hyde-Smith appeared to joke about voter suppression. Her spokesman called the video “selectively edited” and said it was clear Ms. Hyde-Smith’s comments were in jest.
Campaigning in Jackson on Sunday with Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the city’s popular progressive mayor and a rising Democrat in the state, Mr. Espy rarely mentioned the comments — but the voters almost uniformly did.
The partisan and racial cast of the special election represents a stark contrast to the last time Ms. Hyde-Smith’s Senate seat was contested. In 2014, Mr. Cochran turned back a ferocious primary challenge from Mr. McDaniel by building a coalition that crossed traditional political boundaries, encouraging mainline Republicans and African-American Democrats alike to vote against Mr. McDaniel in the state’s open-primary system.
But Mr. Cochran had decades-long relationships with key black leaders in the state and a reputation as a reasonable deal maker. Ms. Hyde-Smith enjoys no comparable reservoir of good will.