By Hastings Wyman –
Last week Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) surprised observers in Jackson and in Washington when he announced that he had selected state Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith to fill the Senate seat to be vacated next month by Thad Cochran (R), 80, who is stepping down for health reasons.
Hyde-Smith, 58, is a beef cattle farmer from Brookhaven, outside of Jackson. When she was in the state Senate, she chaired the Agriculture and Commerce Committee, then won a statewide election to become state Agriculture Commissioner. Although she was a Democrat until 2010, her record in the legislature was conservative and the switch to the GOP was apparently a comfortable change for her.
Hyde-Smith will run on Nov. 6 for the remaining two years of Cochran’s term, but she will not have easy time of it.
It looks likely that two Republicans, Hyde-Smith and tea-party-backed state Sen. Chris McDaniel, and one Democrat, former US Representative and former US Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, will run.
In a three-way contest on Nov. 6, a candidate must get a majority to get elected. “None of the three would be strong enough to get 50% plus one in the first go-round,” says Hayes Dent, a long-time Republican fixture in Mississippi.
The betting is that Espy would come in first, but with only a plurality, and either McDaniel or Hyde-Smith would face Espy in a runoff that will be held later in the month. Says one longtime political journalist, Espy “will get 40%. Chris [McDaniel] and Hyde-Smith will be going after that other 60%.”
Hyde-Smith’s first task will be to unite the GOP establishment behind her. Brad White, Cochran’s chief of staff and a former Republican state chairman, told the Clarion-Ledger that Bryant had made his choice, “and now it’s up to him and the party to see that she’s elected,” He added, “I like Cindy and there’s not a negative word I can say about her as a person or as a public servant.” Says Dent, “She is in the mainstream of Mississippi conservatives.” Added another GOP insider, “The Republican establishment knows who she is, they just don’t know her.”
Among the strengths Hyde-Smith brings to the race is that she is, by all accounts, a tough campaigner and lawmaker. She was elected to three terms in the state Senate and, after she became a Republican in 2010, won two statewide races for Agriculture Commissioner.
“I had the pleasure of stumbling into a subcommittee meeting when she was a state senator,” says Dent. “She jerked the bones out of a state agency head over the size of the budget he was requesting.” He adds, “People have underestimated her… She will do better than people give her credit for.”
She could motivate a higher turn-out among women voters. The state Democratic Party, sure to be behind Espy, is already trying to paint McDaniel as anti-woman, based on some of his Facebook postings. Moreover, women outnumber men among registered voters in the state. Not only will Hyde-Smith be the first woman to represent Mississippi in the United States Senate, she will be the 23rd woman in the US Senate, a record high.
In addition, she is expected to get strong backing from the Farm Bureau, a factor in Gov. Bryant choosing her. Her popularity among the state’s farmers will be helpful to her in countering McDaniel’s strength in the rural counties.
Her major negative at this point is the hostile reaction her appointment has met with in Washington. President Trump has signaled that he is displeased with Hyde-Smith’s appointment, concerned that her past as a Democrat would make her a weak candidate on Nov. 6. And the White House has seen polling data that showed her trailing the other prospects, reports the Washington Post,
Not just the White House, but much of Washington’s Republican establishment is not pleased with the Hyde-Smith appointment. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had urged Gov. Bryant to appoint himself. And Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has declined to say if Hyde-Smith would be a good candidate.
But when Gov. Bryant introduced Hyde-Smith said as his choice, she said she “looked forward to working with President Trump.” She served on Trump’s agriculture committee in the campaign and on his transition team. Since then, Hyde-Smith has been involved with the Trump Administration in more than one agriculture initiative.
In an Espy v. Hyde Smith runoff, Washington GOPers, including the President, might come around. If the economy is strong in November, and who knows what the potential tariff war with China will bring, President Trump’s support could be crucial. If the economy is tanking, however, the backing from Washington will not benefit the GOP in Mississippi – or elsewhere.
If Hyde-Smith has a reputation as a tough campaigner, state Sen. Chris McDaniel showed his scrappy campaign mettle when he waged a hard-right, red-meat challenge to Senator Cochran in 2014, leading the six- term senator in the first primary, only to lose in the runoff. The wound of that loss is still raw for McDaniel and his many of his supporters. Indeed, he said recently, “All I’m asking for now is to be allowed to finish that term that we ran for in 2014.”
McDaniel’s enmity toward the Republican establishment stems from that 2014 race against Cochran. McDaniel very narrowly led Cochran in the first vote, but since he didn’t have a majority, there was a runoff. A number of black voters, who were likely Democrats though Mississippi does not register voters by party, participated in the runoff, helping Cochran to win. McDaniel’s backers felt like the Cochran campaign won by corralling Democratic voters, and black Democratic voters at that, to vote for Cochran in the runoff. And this year, McDaniel will be sure to remind Republican voters that Hyde-Smith was a Democrat until 2010.
While McDaniel had asked Gov. Bryant to appoint him to the vacancy, and “unite” the Republican Party, Bryant dismissed McDaniel as “opportunistic” for switching from opposing the hard-to-beat US Sen. Roger Wicker (R) to the contest for the two years of Cochran’s vacant term.
The GOP establishment’s hostility to McDaniel also stems in large part from the 2014 campaign. A McDaniel supporter broke into a nursing home and took pictures of Cochran’s wife, who was suffering from dementia, hoping to pair that with allegations that Cochran had a relationship with another woman in Washington. The photographer later tragically committed suicide. McDaniel also called Cochran, an icon of the GOP faithful in the state, “a tax-and-spend liberal.”
“Chris McDaniel has a motivated base, a strong base of support,” says Dent; “He will be hard to beat.”
This election is far from a Republicans-only affair. Mike Espy, 64, served six years in Congress from the 2nd District, which includes much of the area around Jackson. He was the first African American to integrate his Mississippi high school and in 1986 became the first black candidate since Reconstruction elected to Congress from the Magnolia State. In 1993, President Clinton appointed him Secretary of Agriculture. Espy was acquitted of bribery charges in the mid-1990s, based on allegations that he received airplane tickets and tickets to sporting events while he was Agriculture Secretary.
Espy is almost certain to make the runoff, unless another African American candidate emerges who could divide the black vote, an unlikely occurrence.
If Espy ends up in a runoff with McDaniel, it would give the Democrats a shot at winning another Deep South senate seat, much like they did in Alabama last year. Some of the more moderate, or “establishment” Republicans, already angry with McDaniel over his 2014 race and his far-right views, might cast their ballots for Espy over McDaniel. Indeed, the Clarion-Ledger has called Espy a black candidate who could appeal to white voters in Mississippi. This was underscored recently when Espy had positive words to say about Cochran, a sign that Espy is hoping for a runoff with McDaniel in which he might win a significant number of white votes.
If he should win, Espy would be the first African American since Reconstruction to represent Mississippi in the US Senate.
Another worry for Hyde-Smith supporters is the possibility of another Republican candidate in the race. The most likely additional GOPer to run would be Andy Taggart, who worked in the late Gov. Kirk Fordice’s (R) administration, worked for the state Republican Party, served as a local elected official, and co-authored two books on Mississippi politics. Taggart said in a statement that he is “very seriously considering running,” noting that “the outcome of this special election is of such crucial importance to our state and to the nation.”
Taggart would be unlikely to come in second behind Espy, but he could influence the outcome. His votes would probably come from Hyde-Smith. Should he get enough votes, he could throw the runoff spot to McDaniel, setting up an Espy-McDaniel runoff that could be favorable to Espy.