by Alan Lange
The least kept secret in Mississippi politics right now is that Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant will tap MS Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith at noon today in Brookhaven to be the replacement for US Senator Thad Cochran.
To say there is some apprehension in some establishment Republican circles in both Mississippi and DC is putting it charitably. Put simply, many in the donor class of establishment Republicans believed that there were more easily electable options with higher name ID and bigger political profiles available for Bryant to choose than Hyde-Smith. As we’ve documented, there is a real possibility that the US Senate Majority will be on a razor’s edge, and party insiders do not relish the prospect of a knock-down, drag-out just to defend a Republican seat . . . in Mississippi.
In talking with multiple sources familiar with the vetting process, Hyde-Smith became the choice of highly confidential yet extreme vetting process, which has gone on over the last few weeks. Bryant’s political instincts are pretty good in terms of Mississippi politics. Nevertheless, professional opposition research and polling were scrutinized, and it was clear that there were no “perfect” candidates. The most obvious ding on Hyde-Smith was that even though she’d been elected twice as a Republican statewide, she converted from the Democratic party in 2010.
However, their internal deliberations came to the following conclusions of why they believe Hyde-Smith made the most sense.
- She was “early Trump”
She stood out from other available options because she was openly and early on the Trump train. She was selected during the 2016 Trump campaign as an advisor on Agriculture. Between that and Bryant’s support and endorsement, it’s hard not to believe that a Trump endorsement of her would follow – and obviously that’s a big deal. To quote a party insider in Mississippi, Trump’s endorsement is “stronger than goat’s breath” here, and it still matters. It likely had a role in moving Chris McDaniel out of the primary against Wicker. It also distinguishes her considerably from Chris McDaniel who has a history of anti-Trump statements and who chose Cruz in a particularly contentious 2016 presidential primary.
- Her voting record in the state senate and her performance as Ag Commissioner is conservative
The vetting team believes that she stacks up favorably to McDaniel in the state senate both in terms of BIPEC scores and on particular issue votes. She was famously to the right of McDaniel on the eminent domain vote overturning Haley Barbour’s veto when she said told her colleagues supporting Governor Barbour that , “You need to get you a pair of asbestos underwear. “You’re going to need it because somebody is going to light up your rear end.” At the end of the day, on Trump issues (immigration/borders, economic policy, etc.), she will be a solid vote in their minds.
- She takes the state flag issue completely off the table
She has essentially the same position on the state flag as Governor Bryant, which is essentially that the people voted in 2001 on that issue and that it will only change if Mississippians vote to change it. This, in their thinking, kneecaps what would likely have been one of the McDaniel campaign’s primary thrusts.
- She has an activated base of supporters in the agriculture community
The selection group evaluated her stance in the Agriculture community. Farmers and the “Farm Bureau crowd” generally think she hung the moon. She would likely have stayed Ag Commissioner for the rest of her career based on the goodwill she has with that community. Those are largely Trump voters and supporters and they believe will be an activated base of people that will support Hyde-Smith.
- She compares favorably to both Chris McDaniel and Mike Espy
The vetting group came to the conclusion based on the data that she was strong where McDaniel and Espy were weak. She’s less vulnerable to attack from McDaniel on being “establishment”, ant-flag, etc., and she’s “squeaky clean” in ways that a campaign messaging will likely contrast with Mike Espy, who was forced to step down as Agriculture secretary during the Bill Clinton administration.
- She is not “overly establishment” and will work hard
Again, for a lot of “establishment” Republicans, she isn’t the intuitive first pick. While McDaniel may try to paint her as the establishment choice, it will be much more difficult to do against her than other available options. As a cattle farmer, she’s a hard worker by nature, and those vetting her were sufficiently satisfied that her campaign work ethic was up to the challenge. And it’s likely that she will cast a wider net, according to those close to Bryant’s thinking, and in an open primary setting will be able to coalesce establishment, rural, women, and agriculture groups that give her the advantage in November.
- She is historic as the first woman senator from Mississippi
Those familiar with the selection process said that while this a real consideration, it was not the primary one in terms of reasons why Hyde-Smith made sense to Bryant.
There’s a recognition in the Bryant camp that there’s some “selling” to do to some of the party faithful, because the pick was not on the conventional political path that many thought he would take. That job will fall in good measure on his shoulders. Again, President Trump will likely be part of that equation, but Bryant’s immediate job is to try and shore up sentiment that this is the best available option for holding the seat in reliably conservative hands. More importantly, Bryant will try and exert all available influence to keep other Republicans from entering the race.
To quote an insider close to Bryant, he’s “all in” and will be as “involved as he needs to be” to make her campaign a success. The early word is that Josh Gregory and Quinton Dickerson from Frontier Strategies, who have served as close political confidants to Bryant, will serve as the primary political braintrust for Cindy Hyde-Smith’s campaign.
Most of the apprehension so far from Republican insiders in Mississippi and DC that I have heard is not how she’ll vote as a US Senator, but whether or not she can win. The debacle in Alabama is still fresh on the minds of a lot of the party faithful, and a “get on board or else” message will likely not be well received. Her performance today and Bryant’s sales pitch will be scrutinized heavily as they together make the case outlined above.
A few weeks ago one of her soon-to-be opponents, State Senator Chris McDaniel, said he was “looking for a fight”.
In all likelihood, courtesy of Phil Bryant and Cindy Hyde-Smith, he’s found one and it starts today at high noon in Brookhaven.