Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant appointed state Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith to the U.S. Senate on Wednesday — a decision that has already drawn concerns from fellow Republicans, including some inside the White House.
Hyde-Smith will succeed Republican Thad Cochran, 80, who has battled health problems and will step down from his Senate seat April 1.
In her remarks, Hyde-Smith said she “looked forward to working with President Trump,” and nodded to his signature campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Later, she said she will run in the Nov. 6 special election to fill the final two years of Cochran’s term.
But White House officials told Bryant that Trump did not support the pick at least for now, according to three people familiar with their conversation, who like others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private talks. A Bryant spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Bryant pushed for a quick endorsement from the president, saying it would be key to her success, a senior White House official said. But the endorsement was denied for now.
A former Democrat who served in the state legislature before being elected to head the agriculture and commerce panel in 2011, Hyde-Smith will be the first woman to represent Mississippi in the Senate. When she is sworn in, the number of women in the upper chamber of Congress will grow to 23, a new high.
Bryant has argued that Hyde-Smith is a strong retail campaigner, and popular among many in Mississippi. But she was not the top choice of GOP officials in Washington. Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had urged Bryant to appoint himself. He declined, ruling himself out earlier this month.
Now, there are concerns that Hyde-Smith will not be able to defeat Chris McDaniel, a hard-right state senator who also is running in the Nov. 6 special election and has been sharply critical of McConnell. White House officials have seen polling data that puts her in the back of the pack in Mississippi, Republican officials said.
Hyde-Smith could be vulnerable to attacks singling her out for her past affiliation with the Democratic Party, Republicans with a close eye on the emerging contest said this week.
“This isn’t like a 1970s Democrat. She was a Democrat until a few years ago,” said one Republican official, granted anonymity to speak candidly. The official expressed a preference for Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, one of the finalists for the appointment, or the lieutenant governor, Tate Reeves, who did not want the job.
White House officials have not thoroughly vetted Hyde-Smith and asked for more time, Republicans familiar with the process said, which Bryant declined to grant.
“No one has ever met her,” one Republican involved in the process said.
The view in McConnell’s orbit is that Bryant would have been the mainstream Republican best-equipped to defeat McDaniel — by far. Widely popular and well-known, Bryant would have been very difficult to defeat. After him, there was not another obvious choice.
Republicans also worry that absent a top GOP alternative to McDaniel, the seat will be at further risk of falling into Democratic hands, even in a deeply conservative state.
There will be no party primaries ahead of the Nov. 6 election. If no one wins a majority, the top two finishers will advance to a runoff. Some worry that if it comes down to McDaniel and a Democrat, his hard-right views could swing centrist Republican voters toward the Democrat.
McConnell and his allies have taken a cautious, wait-and-see approach with Hyde-Smith. They are willing to give Bryant the benefit of the doubt in his choice — but they have not rushed to embrace her. Like the White House officials, they don’t know her well at all.
As word trickled out of Mississippi Tuesday that Hyde-Smith was going to get the appointment, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), the chairman of the Senate GOP campaign arm, declined to say whether she would be a good candidate.
“She’s going to have a very important three- to four-week period coming out of the gate,” said one Mississippi Republican operative deeply familiar with the state, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. Hyde-Smith is going to be in the “toughest race of her life,” the operative added.
The attacks are already headed her way. In an open letter to Trump distributed by McDaniel’s campaign, supporters singled out Hyde-Smith for being a former Democrat.
“She is very unlikely to make the run-off in November, which is why we are writing to you, asking that you not lend your name to a candidate that is likely to lose,” they wrote.