Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant announced today that he has appointed Cindy Hyde-Smith, the state's Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce to fill the seat of GOP U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, who said earlier this month that he would resign effective April 1.
Hyde-Smith, 58, is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi. She began her political career in 1999 when she was elected to a seat in the state Senate, serving until she ran for Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner in 2011. She was a Democrat until she switched parties in 2010. She won her first statewide race with 57 percent and was re-elected in 2015 with 61 percent. She is married to a cattle farmer.
Republican state Sen. Chris McDaniel is also running. Because this is a special election, all candidates regardless of party will run on the same line. If no candidate gets 50 percent, there will be a run-off on a date to be determined. Although no filing deadline has been set yet (the regular filing deadline was March 1), McDaniel could well play the role of spoiler. McDaniel challenged Cochran in the 2014 primary and entered this year's primary race against GOP U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, who is also up for re-election this year. He switched races last week. As the incumbent, Hyde-Smith can count support from state and national Republicans, as well as party-aligned super PACs. At face value, Hyde-Smith's former Democratic credentials would seem to provide McDaniel with a powerful weapon with which to attack her, but Hyde-Smith was a vocal and active supporter of Trump's presidential campaign while McDaniel actively worked against him, first as a member of the leadership of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz's campaign and then in the general election.
The race may prove to be more competitive than a contest in solidly red Mississippi would suggest. Former U.S. Rep. Mike Espy has announced that he is running. Espy, 64, was elected to the U.S. House in 1986, representing the 2nd congressional district. He served until early in 1993 when then-president Bill Clinton appointed him to be Agriculture Secretary. He resigned from the Cabinet in 1994 in the wake of allegations that he accepting illegal gifts and abused government perks. He was ultimately indicted on some of these changes, but acquitted in 1998. Since leaving government, Espy has been practicing law. Espy is a moderate Democrat, who actually endorsed Republican Gov. Haley Barbour for re-election in 2007.
Given that the filing deadline hasn't been set and that Democrats are likely to have a credible candidate in Espy, this race is moving to the watch list (a.k.a. Likely Republican). This doesn't mean that the seat is in play — yet — only that it merits watching developments here. We will revisit the rating after the filing deadline closes