PHILADELPHIA, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi’s Republican governor said he’s satisfied he chose the right person to temporarily fill a U.S. Senate seat, even while acknowledging that some of his own supporters passionately disagree with his decision.
Gov. Phil Bryant spoke to hundreds of people Thursday at the Neshoba County Fair, an annual gathering known as “Mississippi’s Giant House Party.”
Bryant appointed Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith, the second-term state agriculture commissioner, to succeed longtime Sen. Thad Cochran, who retired in April. Hyde-Smith served 11 years as a Democrat in the state Senate and switched to the GOP in late 2010 before launching her first statewide race for ag commissioner in 2011.
“I’m darn glad to say I appointed a United States senator that’s a rancher and not a lawyer, and she’s doing one hell of a job,” Bryant said of Hyde-Smith.
She faces three challengers in a November election to fill the final two years of the term.
One challenger is Republican Chris McDaniel, a tea party-backed state lawmaker who lost a bitter primary election to Cochran in 2014.
As Bryant and other politicians spoke at the fair, dozens of McDaniel supporters packed the front rows of wooden pews under a tin-roofed pavilion and waved campaign signs; many of them also carried the Mississippi flag, which prominently features the Confederate battle emblem. The governor told reporters later that he recognized some in the McDaniel group: “Most of them are my supporters.”
Mississippi has two U.S. Senate races this year, and both are considered crucial as Republicans try to maintain a slim Senate majority.
In one race, Republican Sen. Roger Wicker is seeking another six-year term and faces Democratic state Rep. David Baria.
In the special election, Hyde-Smith faces McDaniel; Democrat Mike Espy, who was President Bill Clinton’s first agriculture secretary in the early 1990s; and Tobey Bernard Bartee, a former military intelligence officer.
At the fair Thursday, Hyde-Smith said she is grateful to represent Mississippi in the Senate and the state should be thankful for the service of Cochran, who was chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee. “Sen. Cochran did us so many favors for so many years,” Hyde-Smith said, and some McDaniel supporters burst into laughter.
Hyde-Smith said some people describe her as “half southern belle, half street fighter.” She referred to herself as a lifelong conservative and NRA member. Some McDaniel supporters heckled her and yelled, “Debate! Debate!”
McDaniel described himself as a defender of President Ronald Reagan’s legacy and said he’s running to challenge the Republican establishment.
“You can’t serve Mitch McConnell and serve the people of Mississippi,” McDaniel said.
A Hyde-Smith supporter stood to one side of the pavilion holding a poster that said: “Missing: Evidence that McDaniel has ever supported Trump.”
Espy said he would work across party lines, if elected.
“Together, we can build a better Mississippi,” Espy said. “But leaders must make up their minds based on the needs of people - not just doing what somebody else tells them to do.”
Special election candidates run without party labels in Mississippi. If nobody receives a majority in the four-way race Nov. 6, the top two candidates would advance to a Nov. 27 runoff.
Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .
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