Why you should care
Because this Deep South Senate race is one of the hottest of the year.
Editor’s note: This story is an OZY encore that first appeared in September. Cindy Hyde-Smith faces Democrat Mike Espy in a nationally watched run-off election Tuesday, November 27.
Cindy Hyde-Smith appears as harmless as a Southern grandmother and as alluring as a Venus flytrap. “You don’t get too hot. Stay hydrated!” she says to one supporter. “Come here, maaan,” she says to another, sensing tiny Jo-Jo’s hesitance as his parents encourage him. “He’s like, ‘I don’t know that woman, I don’t know that woman,’” she says cheerily.
If you’re an adult at the Neshoba County Fair, it seems impossible not to know Hyde-Smith, who until recently was commissioner of agriculture and commerce in a state where commerce is essentially agriculture. With her disarming warmth, she could lull opponents into complacency. Yet she has an edge, shown in a fierce defense of her stances and an ability to stay doggedly on message. That tenacity, combined with her likability, has Republicans encouraged. After all, their hopes to maintain control of the Senate next year could ride on the charm of this 59-year-old cattle rancher who recently became the first woman to represent Mississippi in either chamber of Congress.
Hyde-Smith stumps in a casually regal, crisp white top, a departure from the denim farm jacket she has worn in the past. She wears a sticker that reads “Women for Cindy Hyde-Smith” and a pin denoting her status as a newly minted U.S. senator. Gov. Phil Bryant appointed her in March after ailing longtime incumbent Thad Cochran retired, but she’s eager to puncture any notion that she’s a Beltway insider. Asked how ranching prepared her for Washington, she pivots instead to her teenage years. “Well, I’ll tell ya, my first job was at 15 years old at a Piggly Wiggly grocery store,” she says of a job she worked for five years before graduating from Copiah-Lincoln Community College and the University of Southern Mississippi, and heading into farm life. She later emerged as a state senator from 2000 to 2012, first as a Democrat before changing parties in 2010. “You’ll never meet anybody who says Cindy Hyde-Smith has a lazy bone, because God just didn’t put it in me,” she says, adding a wink to her pearly-white grin.
Hyde-Smith brags about having backed the president’s agenda “100 percent” of the time: “I am very proud of that number.”
The annual fair — two weeks of pony pulls, hayrides and livestock shows that locals call Mississippi’s Giant House Party — was the friendliest of audiences during Hyde-Smith’s six years as agriculture chief. But this year’s reception is indicative of the greater challenge she faces as she aims to keep her Senate seat against Democrat Mike Espy and anti-establishment Republican attorney Chris McDaniel, who routinely ridicules her as “a lifelong Democrat.”
“I have been a conservative my entire life, and I am enjoying that record,” she said from the Neshoba County Fair podium, her words unable to drown out the nearly 100 rabid McDaniel supporters heckling her. Election records show Hyde-Smith voted in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary — she previously has said she didn’t vote for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, but for a lesser-known candidate she can’t remember — before switching parties to run for agriculture commissioner in 2010. She said at the time that “we’re not going to have to bring out any smelling salts for anyone” shocked by her flip. It was also a canny political move, like many across the Deep South at the time: She couldn’t have won statewide with a “D” next to her name.
McDaniel accuses Hyde-Smith of “ideological amnesia” and criticizes her for rejecting a Senate bill to balance the budget in five years. “You can’t campaign on balancing the budget, and the first vote you get to balance, you vote no,” McDaniel says. (Hyde-Smith says she didn’t want to drastically cut military spending.)
Cochran’s departure set up an unusual “jungle primary” in Mississippi in November, when Hyde-Smith, McDaniel and Espy will all be on the ballot, and if no one reaches 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers meet in a runoff election three weeks later. Democrats, hoping for a repeat of the shocking Senate upset next door in Alabama last year, challenge Hyde-Smith for being too conservative in her support of Donald Trump. “I love Cindy. I would vote for her if I was a Republican,” says Democrat and former U.S. Rep. Ronnie Shows, admittedly questionable praise considering the knocks against Hyde-Smith’s conservative accolades. “But I can’t support the program going on in D.C.,” Shows continues. “The problem with any Republican elected is they are yes people.”
After her speech, Hyde-Smith brags about having backed the president’s agenda “100 percent” of the time. “I am very proud of that number,” she says, which leads one national reporter to ask: “Is there a world in which you break from him?” An area of disagreement just hasn’t surfaced yet, says the senator with a proclivity for third-person references, a trait she shares with the president. “I am my own woman, no doubt. The people of Mississippi, if you ask them, they will let you know Cindy Hyde-Smith is Cindy Hyde-Smith all day long.”
Her loyalty paid off: In late August, she received a coveted Trump Twitter endorsement.
…Cindy has voted for our Agenda in the Senate 100% of the time and has my complete and total Endorsement. We need Cindy to win in Mississippi!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 23, 2018
But Mississippi’s interests and Trump’s agenda don’t always align. The ongoing trade war with China has hurt the state’s $109 million soybean export business, which counts China as its only foreign market. “We do want better trade deals. [The standoff] just can’t last long,” says Hyde-Smith, who was one of seven senators who met with Trump at the White House in July to discuss tariffs and agriculture. The president later announced a farm bailout of up to $12 billion that would likely recoup only a small percentage of the losses across the country.
Embracing Trump is smart politics in a state where the president has a 60 percent approval rating, and where Hyde-Smith has to consolidate conservatives to make the runoff. Political insiders from Washington to Mississippi see her as a far safer bet than McDaniel to hold the seat for Republicans. To that end, she persistently refuses to take the bait when asked to critique her bomb-throwing Republican rival. “I am here to tell you about Cindy Hyde-Smith, to stay on the high road,” she says, hoping that familiarity and congeniality still count for something in 2018.
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