Republicans expect Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant to choose Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith for the Senate seat being vacated by Thad Cochran, according to three people knowledgeable about the situation. Bryant has not made an official announcement yet, but it could come as soon as this week, per the sources.
If chosen to fill the seat, Hyde-Smith would face a competitive race against conservative state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who narrowly lost to Cochran in the runoff of the 2014 GOP primary. The race also features Democrat Mike Espy, a former congressman and an Agriculture secretary during the Clinton administration. Cochran plans to leave the seat on April 1.
On Monday, The Clarion-Ledger reported that Bryant’s choice was between Hyde-Smith and Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, after the governor himself and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves took themselves out of the running for the appointment. A spokesperson for Bryant did not respond for comment.
Hyde-Smith has strong ties to the agricultural community and is 12 years younger than the 70-year-old Hosemann, an important attribute given that Mississippi historically has favored senators who attain power over time in order to send a lot of federal funding back to the poor state. Cochran, for example, was first elected to the Senate in 1978 and now serves as the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Hyde-Smith would be Mississippi’s first female senator. “I think he likes the idea of having a woman [appointed],” said one Mississippi Republican operative of Gov. Bryant’s thought process. “It’s glass-ceiling-shattering.”
In the past, the Republican leadership in the Senate has also expressed a desire to diversify its ranks.
When former Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley was considering candidates to fill the Senate vacancy left by Jeff Sessions’ move to be President Trump’s attorney general, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly told Bentley, “We are made up of old white men in the Republican Party. If you could consider a woman, that would be really good for the party.”
In a Senate election, Hyde-Smith would face a formidable foe in McDaniel, who retains a conservative base of support in Mississippi. While her GOP supporters say she is a conservative, Hyde-Smith served in the state legislature for 10 years as a Democrat before switching her party affiliation to Republican in 2010—a point McDaniel would be sure to bring up in the campaign. She then served as a Republican for a couple of years before her election in November 2011 as the state’s commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce.
In an interview with National Journal last week, McDaniel noted, “She was a Democrat most of her career in the state Senate.”
McDaniel had announced a GOP primary run against Sen. Roger Wicker before changing his mind and announcing he would run for the vacated Cochran seat. “The newly-open seat presents the best path for conservatives to win at least one of the seats instead of allowing the establishment to control both seats,” he said in a statement last week. “I am announcing this move early because I’m hoping to unite Mississippi Republicans and avoid another contentious contest among GOP members that would only improve the Democrats’ chances of winning the open seat.”
McDaniel’s crusade against the “establishment” of his party has made him persona non grata to some of those who hold power in Jackson, the capital.
“The governor’s main goal is to prevent Chris from being elected, and I believe he thinks Cindy Hyde-Smith has the best shot at doing that,” said one person close to Bryant. “She’s a conservative female who can connect with the average Mississippian.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Cindy Hyde-Smith was the first woman elected to statewide office in Mississippi. She was the first woman elected state Agriculture Commissioner. Evelyn Gandy was the first woman elected to statewide office, winning the state Treasurer post in 1959.
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