Mississippi Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) has officially been named to replace retiring Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), setting up a tough election against hardline conservative state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R).
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) announced his choice Wednesday, making her the first female senator in the state’s history. But she’ll have to fight hard to keep her new job, as McDaniel, a Tea Party favorite with a rabidly loyal base in the state, is already gunning for the seat.
Hyde-Smith, a former conservative Democrat who switched parties in 2010, sought to bolster her right-wing standing as she braced for a tough race.
“I’ve been a conservative all my life and I’m very proud of my conservative voting record,” Hyde-Smith said in her acceptance speech, talking up her pro-life and pro-gun views. “I have a record of conservatism, I have a record of accomplishments and getting things done for you.”
She also acknowledged her looming primary fight — one that’s almost guaranteed to turn nasty, as the Cochran-McDaniel 2014 primary was one of the strangest and darkest races in modern political memory. Cochran barely held on in that race, and McDaniel maintains it was stolen from him.
“We’re going to have some rough days ahead, but you know what? That’s okay,” she said.
But some Republicans aren’t so sure it will be okay. Establishment-friendly Republicans in both D.C. and Mississippi tell TPM that they’re worried her fairly recent party switch gives McDaniel serious fodder in the race and could endanger their hold on the seat given his controversial views and past statements. Former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy (D) has already announced a bid. If no candidate wins a majority in the November non-partisan campaign, Espy could very well face McDaniel in a runoff that Republicans say could be competitive in the solidly Republican state.
Republicans including President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had encouraged the popular Bryant to appoint himself, but he opted against it. And the White House is reportedly unhappy with the pick, with Trump threatening to refuse to endorse or campaign for her.
Some Mississippi Republicans are already seeing ghosts of Alabama. Like failed candidate Roy Moore (R), McDaniel has a rabid following and views that are fringe enough to put what should be a safe seat in play. While he obviously doesn’t have the same baggage Moore did as an accused sexual predator, Mississippi has a larger African American population and isn’t quite as solidly Republican as its neighbor.
McDaniel was quick to blast Hyde-Smith’s relatively recent party change.
“She ran as a Democrat. She served as a Democrat. She voted like a Democrat. Although her reputation in Jackson was that of a moderate Democrat, the last thing the state of Mississippi needs in Washington is another moderate Democrat,” he said in a statement.
Cochran will resign on April 1 due to a long battle with health problems, and Hyde-Smith will be sworn in shortly after that.