Gov. Phil Bryant of Mississippi has told associates he intends to appoint the state’s agricultural commissioner to fill the seat Sen. Thad Cochran is vacating next month, alarming senior Republicans who believe it could create a messy special election and an opening for Democrats.
Bryant is expected to name Cindy Hyde-Smith, a former Democratic state senator who became a Republican in 2010, as Cochran’s replacement Wednesday, according to two Mississippi Republicans. The 80-year-old Cochran, who has been in ill health, is resigning April 1.
Hyde-Smith would be the first woman to represent Mississippi in Washington, and the first female Republican to represent the Deep South in the Senate. Hyde-Smith would enter the special election in November with the blessing of a popular governor, but she could be vulnerable against state Sen. Chris McDaniel, the firebrand conservative who nearly unseated Cochran in 2014 and recently indicated he would run for the soon-to-be vacated seat.
Bryant has settled on Hyde-Smith but is waiting to speak with — and secure the support of — President Donald Trump before announcing his selection. He had not yet reached Trump on Tuesday morning.
The president and his top advisers worry about giving McDaniel an opening with a weak appointee and are uneasy about the possibility of a replay of last year’s special Senate election in Alabama, when they were saddled with Roy S. Moore as their nominee. That paved the way for a Democrat, Doug Jones, to win a Senate seat in the Deep South.
White House officials urged Bryant not to rush the appointment, according to Republican officials familiar with the conversations.
“This was Governor Bryant’s choice to make,” said Brad White, Cochran’s chief of staff and a veteran state operative. “Now it’s up to him to elect her.”
Bryant is said to favor Hyde-Smith for reasons relating to both politics and personal affinity, viewing her as a rural populist in his own fashion. He has told allies he believes she would excite voters in a way that a more typical Republican officeholder in Jackson, the state capital, would not, and he views her deep connections in the farming communities as significant political assets.
Trump and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, had urged Bryant to appoint himself to the seat, specifically invoking the Alabama debacle. But Bryant had no appetite to go to Washington and neither did Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican who is hoping to succeed the governor in next year’s election.
The governor then decided against Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who is 70 and would not be able to achieve the sort of longevity that Mississippi has come to expect in its senators.
Bryant was eager to fill the vacancy in part because McDaniel last week gave up his primary challenge against Sen. Roger Wicker, an incumbent Republican up for re-election, to run for Cochran’s seat.
McDaniel not an option
McDaniel has made his desire for the appointment clear, but the governor last week responded by saying he would not reward the 45-year-old state senator, who has become a thorn in the side of Mississippi’s Republican establishment.
“This opportunistic behavior is a sad commentary for a young man who once had great potential,” Bryant said.
On Tuesday, McDaniel’s supporters lashed back.
“I support Governor Bryant, but I really am puzzled and disappointed that he wouldn’t select Senator McDaniel,” said Mayor Hal Marx, R-Petal.
“He seems to be defying the will and the want of the 184,000 conservative Mississippians who voted for Senator McDaniel four years ago,” added Marx, who said he saw McDaniel’s decision to change races as “no more opportunistic” than Hyde-Smith’s choice in 2010 to switch parties.
There is no primary in the special election. If no candidate garners a majority, the top two overall vote-getters will face off in a runoff later in November. What concerns some Republicans is that McDaniel’s following on the right could, in a potentially crowded field, earn him a position in the runoff against a Democrat.
And McDaniel, who has a history of making incendiary comments, would be more at risk of losing than a less-controversial Republican. What makes establishment-aligned Republicans even more nervous is the prospect that former Rep. Mike Espy could emerge as the other candidate in the runoff.
Mississippi’s first black congressman since Reconstruction, Espy has deep ties to both Democrats and Republicans in the state.
Still, if Hyde-Smith’s partisan history could make her vulnerable on the right, it could conceivably appeal to moderate voters and even Democrats.
A Democratic vote
Hyde-Smith, a cattle farmer, was first elected to the state Senate in 2000 and rose to become chair of the Agriculture Committee before winning her current office in 2011. But she voted in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, and Republicans who want to derail McDaniel worry that he will use that to link her to former President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Bryant’s decision to appoint her was first reported by the Clarion-Ledger of Mississippi.
What could prove most problematic for Hyde-Smith is if additional Republicans enter the race, making it easier for McDaniel to emerge as the party’s top vote-getter in the first balloting. Andy Taggart, a veteran Republican strategist and author on the state’s political history, told the governor Monday that he also may run, according to a Republican familiar with their conversation.
Asked about his plans, Taggart said: “Out of respect for the governor, I'll keep his and my conversation in confidence.”
As Republicans circulated Tuesday through the state Capitol and at a nearby hotel, where a business group was hosting a luncheon, some expressed concerns about Hyde-Smith’s chances for victory this year.
“I think the mood is of some apprehension because everybody understands how high the stakes are,” said state Rep. Greg Snowden, the second-ranking Republican in the Mississippi House, who repeatedly expressed his support for the governor. “I don’t think anybody is under an illusion that it’s going to be an easy race.”
Snowden said Democrats sensed an opportunity in the Senate contest.
“They’re going to take it seriously,” he said. “Republicans had better take it seriously too, or we’re going to have a problem.”