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Decision 2019: All eyes on GOP race for governor in Mississippi primary

Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves leads Republican field; Attorney General Jim Hood expected to win Democratic nod

JACKSON, Mississippi (CFP) — Voters in Mississippi head to the polls Tuesday to decide statewide races up for grabs in off-year party primaries.

With incumbent Republican Governor Phil Bryant term limited, a field of three Republicans and eight Democrats are vying to replace him. Also on the ballot are competitive primaries for lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general and state treasurer, as well as state legislative seats.

Polls close at 7 p.m. CT.

The race that has drawn the most attention is the Republican primary for governor, where polls have shown Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves holding a commanding lead, though likely not enough to avoid a runoff against the second-place finisher. The two candidates competing for the other runoff slot are former Supreme Court Justice Bill Waller Jr. and State Rep. Robert Foster from DeSoto County.

On the Democratic side, Attorney General Jim Hood — the only Democrat holding statewide office in the Magnolia State — is expected to win his primary over seven challengers in his quest to become the first Democrat in 20 years to win the state’s top job.

Reeves, 45, has served two terms as lieutenant governor after two terms as state treasurer, an office he first won when he was just 29 years old.

Waller, 67, served 21 years on the state’s high court — an elected but non-partisan position — before resigning to run for governor. He is trying to follow in the footsteps of his late father, Bill Waller Sr., who served as governor as a Democrat from 1972 to 1976.

Foster, 36, was elected to the House in 2015. During the campaign, he drew national media attention after refusing to let a female reporter for the website Mississippi Today accompany him on the campaign trail because of a rule he has of not being alone with any woman other than his wife.

Foster defended the practice, followed by the late evangelist Billy Graham and Vice President Mike Pence, and used the controversy to raise money after he was criticized for it in national media outlets.

Hood, 57, has been attorney general since 2004. He has parted with his fellow Democrats by taking more conservative positions on criminal justice and legal abortion, which he opposes. He has also made expanding Medicaid in Mississippi — long blocked by Republicans in Jackson — a centerpiece of his campaign.

If no one wins a majority in Tuesday’s first round of voting, a runoff will be held in three weeks on August 27.

Of the eight elected statewide executive posts, five are open in 2019. Tate and Hood’s campaigns for governor opened up their positions as lieutenant governor and attorney general; Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann gave up his post to run for lieutenant governor; and State Treasurer Lynn Fitch left hers to run for attorney general.

Republicans have competitive primaries for lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and state treasurer. Democrats’ only competitive primary is for secretary of state.

Among the lower-tier races, the one that has gotten the most attention is the Republican race for attorney general, pitting Fitch against State Rep. Mark Baker from Brandon and Andy Taggart, a former Madison County supervisor who has served as an advisor to several Republican governors.

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Former Mississippi U.S. Senator Thad Cochran dies at 81

Cochran, the state’s first Republican senator since Reconstruction, served 45 years in Congress

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

OXFORD, Mississippi (CFP) — Former U.S. Senator Thad Cochran, who became one of Mississippi’s most revered statesmen in a political career that spanned nine presidents, has died. He was 81.

Cochran died May 30 at a nursing home in Oxford. His death was announced by the office of his successor, U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith. His daughter, Kate, told the Washington Post that the cause of death was renal failure.

Former U.S. Senator Thad Cochran

Cochran retired in April 2018 because of ongoing health issues that had kept him away from the Senate for several months.

A funeral service will be held Monday at 11 a.m. at the State Capitol in Jackson. A second service will follow Tuesday at the Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson at 11 a.m.

Tributes for the late senator began pouring upon news of his death.

U.S. Senator Roger Wicker, who sat alongside Cochran representing Mississippi for a decade, said he “was a giant in the United States Senate and one of the greatest champions Mississippi has ever known.”

“When Thad Cochran left the Senate, I was reminded of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote, ‘Lives of great men all remind us we can make our lives sublime, and departing leave behind us footprints on the sands of time,'” Wicker said. “Thad Cochran’s footprints are all around us

“Mississippi and our nation have lost a true statesman in Thad Cochran,” said Governor Phil Bryant. “He was a legend in the United States Senate where he worked tirelessly to move his state and country forward.”

President Donald Trump expressed condolences on Twitter: “Very sad to hear the news on the passing of my friend, Senator Thad Cochran. He was a real Senator with incredible values – even flew back to Senate from Mississippi for important Healthcare Vote when he was desperately ill. Thad never let our Country (or me) down!”

Cochran was born in 1937 in Pontotoc, a small town in the state’s northeast corner. After graduating from Ole Miss in 1959, he served two years in the Navy before returning home to finish law school and begin practicing law in Jackson.

His first foray into politics came in the 1968 presidential race, when he became state chairman for Richard Nixon’s campaign. At the time, the Republican Party was virtually non-existent in Mississippi, and segregationist George Wallace would bury Nixon. But four years later, Cochran would be elected to Congress on Nixon’s coattails as a Republican.

Cochran served three terms in the House before being elected to the Senate in 1978, becoming the first Republican since Reconstruction to represent the Magnolia State in the Senate.

During his time in the Senate, Cochran chaired both the agriculture and appropriations committees, positions that allowed him to funnel billions of dollars in federal money to projects back home, earning him the nickname “King of Pork.”

Cochran routinely won re-election without breaking a sweat until 2014, when he was challenged in the Republican primary by State Senator Chris McDaniel, who tried to rally Tea Party support to dislodge Cochran.

McDaniel forced Cochran into a primary runoff, which is when the good will and political capital the senator had banked during his long career paid off — he narrowly beat McDaniel after encouraging Democratic voters, including African Americans and farmers, to cross over and vote for him in the runoff.

That campaign became extremely contentious, particularly after a McDaniel supporter sneaked into a nursing home to shoot video of Cochran’s late wife, Rose, who was suffering from dementia, which was part of a gambit to accuse the senator of having an improper relationship with an aide.

The hard feelings remained in 2018, when McDaniel ran to succeed Cochran and the Republican establishment pulled out all the stops for Hyde-Smith, who beat McDaniel easily.

Rose Cochran died in 2014. In 2015, the senator married Kay Webber, a longtime aide.

Cochran is survived by his wife, two children and three grandchildren.

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Decision 18: Final U.S. Senate race will be decided in Mississippi Tuesday

Republican U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith tries to withstand controversies dogging her during the runoff with Democrat Mike Espy

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com

JACKSON, Mississippi (CFP) — In the three weeks since the first round of voting in Mississippi’s special U.S. Senate election, Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith has faced a barrage of negative headlines in the national media and apologized for making a joke about attending a public hanging.

Cindy Hyde-Smith in 2014 Facebook photo at Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis’s home

And in a world where nothing on the internet ever goes away, a Facebook photo surfaced of Hyde-Smith — during a visit to the home of Jefferson Davis — wearing a Confederate cap, holding a rifle and calling the tableau “Mississippi history at its best.”

All of this was too much for Wal-Mart, which asked for its campaign contribution back.

But the question to be answered in Tuesday’s runoff is, will any of that be enough to allow her Democratic African-American opponent, Mike Espy, to defeat her in a bright red state where a Democrat hasn’t won a Senate race in 36 years?

Or to overcome very visible support from President Donald Trump, who is making visits to Tupelo and Biloxi on election eve to rally the base for Hyde-Smith?

Hyde-Smith is facing Espy in a special election to fill the remaining two years of the term of Republican Thad Cochran, the Mississippi icon who resigned in April due to ill health. She was appointed by Governor Phil Bryant to serve in the Senate temporarily until voters pick a permanent replacement in the special election.

Hyde-Smith, 59, from Brookhaven, was Mississippi’s agriculture commissioner until being appointed to the Senate. She was originally elected to the state Senate in 2000 as a Democrat but switched parties in 2010.

Former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy

Espy, 64, from Jackson, served three terms in the U.S. House before being picked by President Bill Clinton as agriculture secretary in 1993. He resigned in 1994 amid allegations that he had received improper gifts. He was later acquitted of federal corruption charges.

During the first round of voting November 6, Hyde-Smith and Espy tied at 41 percent, with another Republican in the race, State Senator Chris McDaniel, coming in third.

Given the overwhelming Republican tilt of the Magnolia State, Hyde-Smith was seen as a prohibitive favorite in the runoff. Indeed, McDaniel, who nearly beat Cochran in 2014, was seen as the biggest hurdle to her continued tenure in the Senate.

However, a series of controversies that have dogged her since the first round of voting have given Democrats hope that they might replicate the success they had in Alabama in 2017, when Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore amid allegations of sexual impropriety.

First, five days after the election, a video surfaced in which Hyde-Smith is heard telling a supporter that if he invited her to a public hanging, she would be in the front row. She insisted the remark was a joke, but her critics charged it was a racially insensitive remark to make in a state with a history of lynchings of African-Americans.

During their only campaign debate, Hyde-Smith apologized “to anyone who was offended by my comments,” insisting there was “no ill will” and that her record as senator and agriculture commissioner shows she harbors no racial animus.

“This comment was twisted, and it was turned into a weapon to be used against me — a political weapon used for nothing but personal, political gain by my opponent,” she said.

Another video surfaced November 15 in which Hyde-Smith says it would be a “great idea” to make it more difficult for liberals to vote, which her campaign insisted was a joke made to supporters and not advocacy of voter suppression.

Then a week before the runoff, news organizations began reporting a photo posted in 2014 on Hyde-Smith’s Facebook account, where she is donning a Confederate cap and carrying a rifle at Davis’s home in Biloxi.

The caption read: “I enjoyed my tour of Beauvoir. The Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library located in Biloxi. This is a must see. Currently on display are artifacts connected to the daily life of the Confederate Soldier including weapons. Mississippi history at its best!”

Her campaign did not offer any comment in the photo. But a spokeswoman pushed back hard when the Jackson Free Press reported that Hyde-Smith had attended a high school in the 1970s originally founded to allow white parents to avoid sending their children to segregated schools. The story included photos of a teenage Hyde-Smith posing with her cheerleading pom-poms.

“In their latest attempt to help Mike Espy, the gotcha liberal media has taken leave of their senses,” said spokeswoman Melissa Scallan. “They have stooped to a new low, attacking her entire family and trying to destroy her personally instead of focusing on the clear differences on the issues between Cindy Hyde-Smith and her far-left opponent.”

What won’t be clear until Tuesday is how much any of these controversies will affect the outcome of this race. Many white Mississippians of Hyde-Smith’s generation attended so-called “segregation academies” when they were young. And wearing a Confederate cap has a different connotation in a place where the state flag still contains the Confederate battle emblem than it does in media and political circles in Washington or New York.

Also, none of the controversies dogging Hyde-Smith comes anywhere close to the situation in Alabama, where Moore was accused of sexual misconduct with underage girls, which he denied.

Mississippi has the largest percentage of African-American residents of any state, 37 percent. So the result of the runoff will likely hinge on the turnout among African-American voters, who are expected to go Democratic in large numbers.

If African-Americans make up 30 percent of the electorate Tuesday, as they did in the first round of voting, Espy would need about a third of the white vote to get to a majority. If they make up 35 percent, he would need about a quarter of the white vote.

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Mississippi Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith picked for U.S. Senate vacancy

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.

Cindy Hyde-Smith unveiled as senator (From WJTV)

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.

Chris McDaniel switches to open U.S. Senate race in Mississippi

Decision sets off feud with Governor Phil Bryant, who tells McDaniel that Senate “is not the business for you”

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

JACKSON, Mississippi (CFP) — Republican State Senator Chris McDaniel has decided to end his primary challenge to U.S. Senator Roger Wicker and instead run for a vacancy created by the resignation of Mississippi’s other senator, Thad Cochran.

State Senator Chris McDaniel

But McDaniel’s switch, and a lobbying campaign by his supporters to persuade Governor Phil Bryant to pick McDaniel as Cochran’s temporary replacement until the November election, has led to a war of words between McDaniel and the governor, who has made it clear he will do whatever it takes to keep McDaniel out of the Senate.

“This opportunistic behavior is a sad commentary for a young man who once had great potential,” Bryant said in a March 15 statement released after McDaniel announced he was changing races.

In a statement announcing the switch, McDaniel said he want Republicans “to unite around my candidacy and avoid another contentious contest among GOP members that would only improve the Democrats’ chances of winning the open seat.”

“If we unite the party now and consolidate our resources, we can guarantee Donald Trump will have a fighter who will stand with him,” he said.

Members of the Mississippi Tea Party came to the Capitol in Jackson on March 14 to lobby Bryant to appoint McDaniel to the seat, which would clear the way for him to win the post permanently in November.

However, the governor made it clear that won’t happen, sending a blunt message to McDaniel in an interview with the Jackson Clarion-Ledger: “This is not the business for you.”

Bryant’s reaction to McDaniel’s candidacy shows that hard feelings have lingered from a bruising 2014 Senate primary in which McDaniel nearly ousted Cochran, a fixture in state politics for more than four decades.

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, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom he accused of meddling in the Mississippi Senate races.

“Mitch McConnell wants to hand-pick our next senator. I understand why. It’s because they know that I won’t be answering to them, I’ll be answering to the voters of Mississippi and putting Mississippi first,” he said in a statement.

But Bryant told the Clarion-Ledger that Cochran’s charge that McConnell was trying to dictate the Senate appointment was “the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Bryant will appoint a temporary replacement for Cochran who will serve until a new senator is elected in a special election in November to fill the final two years of Cochran’s term. The governor is expected to pick someone who will contest the seat.

In the special election, candidates from all parties will run in the same race, with the top two finishers competing in a runoff in no one wins a majority in the first round.

Former Secretary Mike Espy

Complicating matters for the Republicans is the candidacy of former U.S. Rep. Mike Espy, a Democrat who served as secretary of agriculture in the Clinton administration.

If the Republican field is divided between McDaniel and Bryant’s pick for the vacancy, Espy — who became the first African American to represent Mississippi in Congress since Reconstruction when he was elected in 1986 — could top the first round of voting.

African Americans make up 37 percent of the state’s voting age population. No Democrat has won a Senate seat in Mississippi since 1982.

Cochran, 80, resigned because of ill health. He has served in Congress since 1972.

Mississippi U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee dies from brain cancer

Special election will be held to replace the three-term Republican

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com

mississippi mugTUPELO, Mississippi (CFP) — U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee died February 6 after an eight-month battle with brain cancer. He was 56.

His death at his home in Tupelo was announced in a brief statement from his family:

Late U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee

Late U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee

“Congressman Alan Nunnelee has gone home to be with Jesus. He was well loved and will be greatly missed,” the statement said.

Nunnelee, a former state senator, was elected to the House in the Republican wave of 2010, representing the Magnolia State’s 1st District, which takes in the northern and northeastern parts of the state.

Nunnellee was re-elected last November, despite surgery for brain cancer in May  that led to a stroke. He was undergoing rehabilitation until January, when the cancer recurred.

Governor Phil Bryant will have 60 days to call a special election to fill Nunnelee’s seat.

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