- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The governor of Mississippi’s appointed Cindy Hyde-Smith to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Thad Cochran on Wednesday, setting up what’s likely to be a vicious intraparty battle when the seat is up for election in November.

Gov. Phil Bryant’s move appeared designed to give Mrs. Hyde-Smith an early start and to head off state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who had been eyeing the race and had tried to get President Trump to intervene on his behalf.

For now, Mrs. Hyde-Smith, the current state agriculture commissioner, becomes the first woman to represent Mississippi in Congress — leaving Vermont as the only state never to have had a female House or Senate member.

She will take the seat on April 1, when Mr. Cochran officially steps down after nearly 40 years in the Senate.

She will then have about seven months to prepare for a special election in November, where Mr. McDaniel, a Republican, and former Rep. Mike Espy, a Democrat, are also running.

“I’ll always stand for our conservative Mississippi values by supporting pro-life policies and our Constitutional rights — including our 2nd Amendment right to bear arms,” Mrs. Hyde-Smith said after her appointment was announced.

The White House did not respond to inquiries into whether Mr. Trump supported the pick, but hours earlier Mr. McDaniel and 100 local leaders had penned an open letter to the president saying Mississippi GOP officials were putting the seat at risk by looking to Mrs. Hyde-Smith, who was a Democrat until she switched parties in 2010.

“The fact is, the D.C. establishment would rather let a Democrat have the seat than let a conservative win,” Mr. McDaniel said.

He predicted Mrs. Hyde-Smith will have a difficult time winning a majority in November. If nobody wins outright the race would go to a runoff between the top two vote-getters, where Mr. McDaniel said Democrats could snare a seat that normally should be an easy win for the GOP.

Anticipating Mr. McDaniel’s attacks, Mr. Bryant described Mrs. Hyde-Smith as a “rock-solid conservative” and said she was “the most reliable vote I had for conservative causes” when she served as a Democrat in the state legislature.

“Cindy has also successfully carried the banner for the Republican Party in statewide elections and demonstrated her statewide appeal to voters by winning in an overwhelming fashion,” Mr. Bryant said.

The announcement is the latest domino to fall as a result of Mr. Cochran’s decision to leave Congress due to health issues.

Mr. Espy immediately announced his intention to run for the seat, which Mr. Cochran, head of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, has held since 1978.

Mr. McDaniel entered the race about two weeks later, abandoning a primary run against the state’s other Republican senator, Roger Wicker. He had pleaded for the GOP to united behind his candidacy, but the party’s establishment had other ideas.

Marvin King, political science professor at the University of Mississippi, said Mrs. Hyde-Smith was “a safe choice” who could help the party avoid the kind of divisive primary battle Mr. McDaniel and Mr. Cochran waged in 2014.

“She will be able to plant herself as the responsible conservative sort of person and kind of appeal to — by Mississippi standards — moderate conservatives who want conservative Republican, but not necessarily a firebrand, not necessarily a Ted Cruz-type,” Mr. King said.

Noel Fritsch, who served as Mr. McDaniel’s campaign spokesman in 2014, said his former boss faces an uphill battle.

“Sen. McDaniel has drawn a tough card if Cindy Hyde-Smith is the establishment’s chosen opponent in November,” Mr. Fritsch said. “She is a gracious, good woman who already has very broad appeal statewide, and whose likeability is through the roof. With Gov. Bryant and President Trump stumping for her she will be hard to beat.”

He added, “But if McDaniel can chip away at her votes without appearing unkind, he may be able to pull it off.”

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