The two candidates say this race offers a unique opportunity. They decry the politics of pitched partisan warfare. They talk about reaching across the aisle and solving problems.

This kind of optimistic rhetoric may aspire to reach beyond the fray, but it puts Mike Espy and Jason Shelton on a collision course.

Democrats in a deep red state, Espy and Shelton find themselves among a field of five candidates seeking to replace the now-retired Thad Cochran in a free-for-all, non-partisan special election this November.

Neither candidate has taken direct aim at the other, even as the campaigns of Republican candidates Chris McDaniel and Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith have generated hostility in GOP circles.

Shelton’s first campaign stump speech late last month emphasized his hometown roots, his City Hall record and urged voters to send the “next generation of leaders” to Washington, subtly emphasizing his relative youth.

In a conversation with a Daily Journal reporter, Espy unspooled a few details of how he’ll pitch himself to voters. He emphasized his experience in federal office, highlighted agriculture issues and talked about retaining young Mississippians to remain in the state.

But whether Espy and Shelton directly tangle or not, each man is attempting to claim a similar strategy, downplaying partisan affiliation, identifying as pragmatic and highlighting conservative credentials.

Espy said he has a proven record of shrinking the federal government. During his time as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Espy says he imposed staff reductions and worked to cut through a bloated bureaucracy.

Indeed, he’ll not only be the candidate with the longest record of service within federal government, Espy suggested he’ll be the only candidate with a proven track record of shrinking the federal government.

Espy also emphasized his 2007 endorsement of Republican Gov. Haley Barbour’s then re-election campaign.

This was simply the right thing for the state, in Espy’s telling. Espy says he believed that only Barbour had the necessary connections and savvy to ensure the ongoing success of Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts.

Shelton has leaned heavily on fiscal issues to burnish a case for himself as a candidate with broad, bipartisan appeal, highlighting the budget surpluses and debt reduction that has occurred under his watch at City Hall.

“I’ll likely be the most conservative candidate in the race as far as tax payer dollars,” Shelton said to the Daily Journal the day he announced his candidacy.

In attempting to pivot from his local record to national issues, Shelton has highlighted the national debt, historically an issue emphasized by the GOP.

On his campaign website, Shelton pledges to help “push back the rising tide of debt swallowing our nation.”

Hailing from different regions and representing different eras of Mississippi leadership, Shelton, mayor of Tupelo, and Espy, a former congressman and one-time presidential cabinet secretary, could have played out their careers without crossing paths.

Could have, that is, until the retirement of the long-tenured Cochran.

Buoyed by the underdog example of Democrat Doug Jones in neighboring Alabama, Shelton and Espy each hope to scale the electoral trends that stand athwart their ambitions.

And while neither man has attempted to hide his party affiliation, each has highlighted that they see a non-partisan race as a unique opportunity to duplicate what some have dubbed the “Alabama miracle.”

“This is my opportunity,” Espy told the Daily Journal, “to run as just me.”

— Caleb Bedillion / Daily Journal