Espy was the last holdout in a class of at least nine black candidates across the country who secured major-party nominations for statewide office. Stacey Abrams, Ben Jealous, and Andrew Gillum ran for the governor’s mansions in Georgia, Maryland, and Florida, respectively. Mandela Barnes ran for Lt. Governor in Wisconsin, and Deidre DeJear ran for secretary of state in Iowa. There was also a deep roster of black candidates seeking election to state attorney general offices, including Aaron Ford of Nevada, Sean Shaw of Florida, Letitia James of New York, and Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota. Of the entire slate of candidates for statewide offices, only James, Ellison, and Ford won. There hasn’t been an election year featuring this many serious black challengers in the South since Reconstruction. Yet, every such candidate in the South lost.
For many black voters, there’s despair in just how those black candidates have lost. In Florida, Gillum, the Democratic candidate, lost his bid for governor to the GOP’s Ron DeSantis. DeSantis opened up his campaign against Gillum by warning voters not to “monkey this up.” The race featured revelations of DeSantis’s connections to neo-Confederate groups and virulent racists, including major donor Steven M. Alembik, who according to a Politico report recently called President Barack Obama a “fucking Muslim nigger” on Twitter. And just days before the election, a white-supremacist group directed robocalls to Democratic leaders in the state, saying “I is the negro, Andrew Gillum, and I be askin’ you to make me governor of this here state of Florida.”
In Georgia, just before controversies involving voter suppression and a flood of irregularities on Election Day marred the governor’s race, another robocall told voters: “This is the magical Negro Oprah Winfrey asking you to make my fellow Negress Stacey Abrams the governor of Georgia.” As the race reached crunch time, The New York Times reported that a photo of Abrams appearing to burn an old Georgia state flag began to “emerge on social media.” That old flag featured the Confederate battle banner, and in 2000 the state government replaced the flag and admitted that it had been adopted in 1956 “in an atmosphere of preserving segregation and resentment toward the United States government.” Yet, Kemp attempted to use the photo to illustrate that Abrams was “too extreme for Georgia.” Continuing on that theme, on the day before Election Day, Kemp drummed up the New Black Panther Party and its support for Abrams, and ran robocalls repeating a lie that she would win with votes from unauthorized immigrants.
For the marquee races, President Donald Trump had a knack for intervening in a way that evoked the language of the old segregationists. A day before the runoff between Espy and Hyde-Smith, which was triggered after neither could gather the 50 percent of votes needed to win, Trump echoed an old-school racist innuendo about Espy on the trail in Tupelo. “How does he fit in with Mississippi?” the president asked about the former Congressman from Yazoo City, whose grandfather built Mississippi’s first black-owned hospital. Before the general election, without citing any evidence or giving any reasoning, the president called Abrams “not qualified,” and stated that she intended to turn Georgia into a “giant sanctuary city.” The president did one further for Gillum, labeling him a “thief” on Twitter. Those characterizations from the president are just one more example of a GOP signature strategy: closing with racist appeals.