Selection sets up contentious special election battle with Republican State Senator Chris McDaniel
BROOKHAVEN, Mississippi (CFP) — State Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith has been picked to fill Mississippi’s vacant seat in the U.S. Senate, marking the first time the Magnolia State has ever sent a woman to Congress.
The question now is whether Hyde-Smith, a former Democratic state legislator who switched parties in 2010, can keep the seat permanently in a November special election that is likely to become a bruising battle for conservative votes against State Senator Chris McDaniel.
Governor Phil Bryant announced his selection of Hyde-Smith on March 21 in her hometown of Brookhaven.
“I pledge to you to serve all of our citizens with dignity, honor and respect,” she said in a speech where she emphasized her conservative positions against abortion and in favor of gun rights. “I’ve been a conservative all my life, and I’m very proud of my conservative record.”
She also noted that “this history of this moment is not lost on me.”
“I hope I can inspire young people to work hard to achieve their goals,” she said.
However, Bryant’s decision to pick Hyde-Smith came in for blistering criticism from McDaniel, whose supporters had been lobbying Bryant to appoint him to the seat created by the retirement of Republican U.S. Senator Thad Cochran.
“I was troubled to learn that Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant dutifully followed the orders of the Washington establishment’s Mitch McConnell,” McDaniel said in a statement. “Knowing the establishment’s opposition to conservatives, it was not at all surprising that they would choose a former Democrat.”
But in his introduction of Hyde-Smith, Bryant brushed aside suggestions that he was doing the bidding of Senate Republican leaders in picking Hyde-Smith.
“This decision is mine and mine alone,” he said. “But after it has been made, we need all Mississippians to stand with us if we are to be victorious.”
Hyde-Smith, 58, who operates a cattle farm with her husband, served in the state Senate as a Democrat from 2000 to 2010 and as a Republican from 2010 to 2012, when she left the Senate to run for agriculture commissioner. She won that race and was reelected with 61 percent of the vote in 2015.
In November, Hyde-Smith will run in an all-party special election against McDaniel and Democrat Mike Espy, a former congressman who served as federal agriculture secretary in the Clinton administration. If no candidate gains a majority, the top two finishers will meet in a runoff.
McDaniel, who nearly toppled Cochran in a 2014 primary, had originally filed to run against the state’s other GOP senator, Roger Wicker. But after Cochran announced his retirement, McDaniel changed course and decided to run for the open seat instead.
His decision to switch races led to a war of words with Bryant, who accused McDaniel of being “opportunistic” and made it clear that he would not only not appoint him to the vacant seat but would oppose his candidacy in the special election.
Bryant’s reaction to McDaniel’s candidacy shows that hard feelings have lingered from from the 2014 primary.
During that campaign, a McDaniel supporter, Clayton Kelly, sneaked into a nursing home to photograph Cochran’s wife, who was suffering from dementia, in order to collect material for a political video alleging that Cochran was involved in an extramarital affair. McDaniel denied any involvement in the scheme; Kelly later went to jail.
McDaniel has been a harsh critic of the Republican establishment, including Cochran, Wicker, and, especially, McConnell, the Senate majority leader whom he accused of meddling in Mississippi ‘s Senate races.
Though Hyde-Smith pronounced herself a supporter of President Trump in her statement accepting Bryant’s appointment, Politico reported that the White House opposed the governor’s decision because of fears that Hyde-Smith won’t carry the race in November.
However, she will be running not only with the support of Bryant but also with deep roots in the agriculture community, an important constituency in Mississippi.