Ag official who backed Trump expected to get US Senate nod

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant is preparing to fill an upcoming vacancy in the U.S. Senate, and three state Republican sources told The Associated Press that he will choose the state agriculture commissioner who helped advise Donald Trump's presidential campaign in 2016.

Bryant, a supporter of President Trump, plans to appear Wednesday in the south Mississippi city of Brookhaven to announce a temporary successor for longtime Sen. Thad Cochran. The 80-year-old veteran senator is retiring April 1 because of poor health.

Brookhaven is the hometown of Cindy Hyde-Smith, a Republican and cattle farmer who was first elected agriculture commissioner in 2011. She is the first woman to serve as agriculture commissioner in the largely rural state, and would be the first woman to represent Mississippi in Congress.

The sources who said Bryant would appoint Hyde-Smith spoke on condition of anonymity because the announcement was not yet official.

Hyde-Smith, 58, would immediately begin campaigning for the Nov. 6 special election to fill the rest of Cochran's term, which expires in January 2020. She could call for support from agricultural interests, which are strong in Mississippi. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Hyde-Smith served on a large agriculture advisory committee for Trump.

Tea party-backed Republican state Sen. Chris McDaniel and Democrat Mike Espy — President Bill Clinton's first agriculture secretary — also intend to run in the special election. Hyde-Smith is expected to be backed by the national and Mississippi GOP establishment as Republicans try to maintain their slim Senate majority.

McDaniel came close to defeating Cochran in a bitter 2014 primary and originally qualified this year to challenge Mississippi's other Republican senator. But, McDaniel announced last week that he would instead seek Cochran's seat. Espy in 1986 became the first African-American in modern times to win a congressional seat in Mississippi.

Other candidates could yet join the special Senate race. If no one wins a majority Nov. 6, a runoff would be Nov. 27.

Marvin King, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi, said Hyde-Smith is "a safe pick that won't rankle."

"She'll be able to plant herself as the 'responsible conservative' who will follow Cochran's legacy in looking out for Mississippi, first things first," King said. "My guess is national GOP money will go after Espy, so she can focus on appealing to the mass of conservative voters who want a conservative in the Senate, but not a firebrand."

Cochran won his first Senate election in 1978 after serving six years in the House, becoming the first Republican U.S. senator from Mississippi since Reconstruction ended. The mild-mannered Cochran joined the Senate when it had a far clubbier atmosphere and he played an insider's game throughout his seven terms — particularly as current chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, which had long been a bipartisan powerhouse and way to send taxpayer dollars home.

Hyde-Smith served 12 years as a Democrat in the state Senate from a rural southwest Mississippi district, and is known for the occasional folksy turn of phrase. In 2009, she urged colleagues to override Republican Gov. Haley Barbour's veto of a bill that would have restricted the government's ability to take private land for economic development projects. Hyde-Smith said any lawmaker opposing property rights would ignite voters' anger.

"You need to get you a pair of asbestos underwear," Hyde-Smith told those supporting the governor. "You're going to need it because somebody is going to light up your rear end."

She became a Republican in late 2010, and won a three-way GOP primary for agriculture commissioner in 2011 without a runoff. She beat Democratic opponents even more easily in the 2011 and 2015 general elections.

Hyde-Smith is one of only four women ever elected to statewide office in Mississippi. It and Vermont are the only two U.S. states that never have elected a woman to Congress.

McDaniel is running on anti-establishment message and accusing Bryant of letting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or other GOP leaders in Washington pick the state's next senator. Bryant denied any such influence, but said he expects Trump and others to aid his choice. Bryant and McDaniel have benefited from substantial tea party backing, but the governor said McDaniel was "opportunistic" for switching Senate races.

Bryant has said he was focused on naming someone who could hold the seat for years to come. By passing over 70-year-old Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, Bryant follows a long Mississippi tradition of seeking to place federal lawmakers who can stay in Congress for decades and build seniority and influence.


Associated Press writer Alan Fram contributed to this report from Washington.