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Perhaps it was the violent history of the state, once the lynching capital of the country. Perhaps it was the size of the black population, the largest percentage of any state in the country. Or maybe it was just the glimmer of hope that barriers could finally be broken in Mississippi, which had resisted breaking them for so many decades.
But for Democratic organizers, civil rights activists and African-American elected officials, Mike Espy’s loss in the Mississippi Senate race on Tuesday cut deep.
“Being a son of the South, I’ve worked all my life to try to make the South a much better place for all of its citizens,” said Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, the morning after Mr. Espy’s defeat. “We’re still working on that.”
As several African-American Democrats now weigh campaigns for the presidency in 2020, it’s worth pausing to consider how 2018 turned out for leading black candidates and some of the challenges they faced.
Across the country, black candidates broke records this election cycle. A historic number of African-Americans will enter the House this year, including the most black women ever. Their ranks include eight black candidates who won in majority white districts.
In Nevada, the incoming attorney general, Aaron Ford, is the first African-American to win a statewide executive office. And in Wisconsin, Mandela Barnes will be the state’s first black lieutenant governor.
But in some of the highest-profile races, mostly in the South, efforts to elect black Democrats came up short. Along with Mr. Espy, in Florida, three other contenders — Andrew Gillum in Florida, Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Ben Jealous in Maryland — fell shy of winning the governor’s mansions. In Michigan, a black Republican, John James, lost in his bid for the Senate.
Mr. Gillum, Ms. Abrams and Mr. Jealous would have been their states’ first black governors — and the only black governors in office in the United States. And had Mr. Espy won in Mississippi, he would have been the first African-American to represent his state in the Senate in nearly 150 years.
Race was an inescapable factor in three of the races. Mr. Gillum’s opponent, Ron DeSantis, opened his campaign by warning voters not to “monkey this up,” by electing Mr. Gillum. In Georgia, Ms. Abrams and her campaign complained vociferously about voter suppression tactics by her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp, that they said disproportionally impacted minority voters, and likely cost her the election.
And in Mississippi, Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, who defeated Mr. Espy, came under fire for saying of a supporter, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” She later apologized to “anyone who was offended” by the comment.
President Trump added to the racial undercurrent, eagerly lobbing insults packed with innuendo at all three candidates. He called Mr. Gillum “a thief” and said Ms. Abrams was “not qualified.” Of Mr. Espy, the president wondered: “How does he fit in with Mississippi?” — a strange question about a man whose grandfather built the state’s first black-owned hospital.
Organizers and political strategists who are working to build the infrastructure to promote black candidates say that gains were made, even as they fell short of victory. Yvette Simpson, the incoming executive director of the progressive group Democracy for America, says the campaigns of all three candidates will make it easier for black and brown candidates in the future.
“They won the hearts of the country,’’ said Ms. Simpson. “They got as close as…