BROOKHAVEN, Miss. — Mississippi’s Republican agriculture commissioner, who served on a farm advisory committee for President Donald Trump, was appointed Wednesday to succeed a veteran U.S. senator who is resigning because of poor health.
Cindy Hyde-Smith immediately pledged to support Trump’s agenda, saying she will push for border security, support gun rights, oppose abortion, and work to rebuild the military and repeal health care changes enacted under former President Barack Obama.
“I am truly humbled. I am truly grateful. I thank God for that opportunity. I am stronger today than I think I have ever been,” Hyde-Smith told about 200 people who gathered outside a train depot in Brookhaven, the south Mississippi city where she lives with her husband, Michael Smith, and their daughter, Anna-Michael Smith, a college freshman.
Hyde-Smith, who runs a cattle farm with her husband, served 12 years in the state Senate, 11 of them as a Democrat. She switched to the Republican Party in late 2010 and was elected statewide in 2011 as the Mississippi commissioner of agriculture.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant chose her to succeed GOP Sen. Thad Cochran, 80, who is stepping down April 1 with nearly three years left in his term. Cochran issued a statement congratulating Hyde-Smith: “She is a very well-qualified person whose experiences and excellent character will benefit our state in Washington.”
Hyde-Smith, 58, is expected to be sworn in about April 9, when Congress returns from a break. She will be the first woman to represent Mississippi in either the U.S. House or Senate. She promised to work closely with Mississippi’s other Republican senator, Roger Wicker.
She immediately begins campaigning for a Nov. 6 nonpartisan special election to fill the rest of Cochran’s term, which expires in January 2021.
Bryant has said he believes the president will campaign for Hyde-Smith in the special election, which could attract several candidates. A person close to both the governor and the Hyde-Smith campaign said Wednesday that Bryant has spoken to a low-level political adviser in the White House about the governor’s appointment of Hyde-Smith but he had not yet spoken directly to Trump about it.
Chris McDaniel, a tea party-backed state senator who nearly unseated Cochran in a bruising 2014 Republican primary, is running in the special election. Democrat Mike Espy, who was President Bill Clinton’s first agriculture secretary, also intends to run. Espy in 1986 became the first African-American in modern times to win a congressional seat in Mississippi, and he has publicly supported both Democrats and Republicans in various races.
Cochran’s resignation creates two Senate races this year in Mississippi as Republicans try to maintain their slim Senate majority. Although it is a deeply conservative state, Democrats are hoping to capitalize on divisions among Republicans in hopes of winning a Nov. 27 runoff, if there is one.
Bryant told reporters after the announcement Wednesday that he has no qualms about Hyde-Smith’s history as a Democrat.
“I think there are a lot of former Democrats in the state of Mississippi, so we welcome those that are in the Democratic Party,” Bryant said. “If there are other conservatives that feel like the party has moved away from them, they are certainly welcome to come to the Republican Party today. … She’s been a conservative all her life.”
Hyde-Smith grew up in the small town of Monticello in southern Mississippi, and farmer Barbara Lowe, who still lives there, has known her for decades.
“Cindy has always been a people person, has always wanted to help and do for everybody,” Lowe, 67, said Wednesday in Brookhaven.
Bryant has said he was focused on naming a senator who could serve at least 20 years. Mississippi has a tradition of sending the same people to Washington for decades to build seniority and influence. Cochran is in his second stint as chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee.
Mississippi and Vermont are the only two U.S. states that never have elected a woman to Congress. Hyde-Smith said she hopes she can be a role model for young people like her daughter. Noting that Mississippi has had only five U.S. senators in the past 70 years, Hyde-Smith said: “The history of this moment is not lost on me.”