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Cindy Hyde-Smith is Mississippi’s first female U.S. senator

Brookhaven’s Cindy Hyde-Smith will make history as Mississippi’s first female U.S. senator after accepting the governor’s appointment to that high chamber Wednesday during a rally downtown.

The Lincoln County cattle farmer and 18-year politician arrived in a motorcade of black SUVs to make the official announcement to a crowd of more than 200 supporters in the north parking lot of the old train depot at noon, where a small stage had been set up for the occasion. She addressed the crowd to cheering applause after being introduced by Gov. Phil Bryant.

“I pledge to you to serve all our citizens with dignity, honor and respect,” Hyde-Smith said. “I look forward to serving in the U.S. Senate with Sen. Roger Wicker and Mississippi’s congressional delegation. You can get many things done in Washington, D.C. for Mississippi, and I look forward to working side by side with them to truly make our state a better place.” 

Hyde-Smith will begin serving in the Senate on April 1, the date of current U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran’s retirement. She will face what is shaping up to be a hotly contested special election in November that will have big implications on the balance of national politics.

Wednesday’s rally was more campaign kickoff than solemn ceremony, and Hyde-Smith used the half-hour address to transform herself from state politician to national contender. She switched between reading carefully prepared notes and bursting into lively anecdotes about her life and service, sweetened with the folksy, southern-girl expressions for which she is known.

She highlighted overseas experience gained as state commissioner of agriculture and commerce — a position she’s held through two elections beginning in 2011 — including visits to China in successful efforts to convince the nation to buy U.S. beef. She also touted her office’s work on the regulation of catfish imports and the promotion of U.S.-raised catfish.

Hyde-Smith also pointed out a visit she made to U.S. troops in Bosnia as a state senator shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. 

“One of the greatest honors in my life, to go to the soldiers of Lincoln and Lawrence counties,” she said. “It was nine degrees below zero when we got off the plane, but nobody was warmer than this little Lawrence County girl right here.”

Hyde-Smith named off a list of Republican causes she supports, including a rebuild of the military, border security, repealing Obamacare, opposing abortion and supporting the Second Amendment. Several passages from the Bible were quoted.

Her speech seemed designed to reassure old-school Republicans and, at the same time, absorb some of the further-right causes championed by the more fiery conservatives that have risen up over the last decade.

That same group of burn-it-all conservatives elected President Donald Trump, and state Sen. Chris McDaniel is banking on them for support for the November special election, where he’ll face Hyde-Smith and Democrat Mike Espy, a former U.S. congressman and President Bill Clinton’s agriculture secretary.

Hyde-Smith tried to move herself closer to Trump during her address, praising his administration’s slashing of regulations and even repeating the familiar Trump battle cry, “make America great again.” She advised Trump on agricultural issues during his run for the White House and was considered for U.S. agriculture secretary.

 Just before her Brookhaven address began, multiple national news agencies reported Trump will not campaign for Hyde-Smith nor endorse her, as the top brass in the Republican Party are worried her history as a Democrat will cripple her in the upcoming race against McDaniel.

National Republican Senatorial Committee polling results show Hyde-Smith placing third in the race behind McDaniel and Espy. Republican leaders in Washington are fearful of the party’s slipping grasp in Congress, especially after recent disasters in races in Alabama and Pennsylvania, where Democrats took over in what were predicted to be easy Republican victories.

Hyde-Smith served in the state Senate as a Democrat from 2000 to 2010 before switching to the Republican Party, a move opponents say was made strictly for the sake of winning the race for agriculture commissioner. 

McDaniel’s campaign sent out an open letter to Trump Tuesday night calling on him to withhold support for Hyde-Smith, with around 100 county-level Republican leaders across Mississippi affixing their names in support. The group sent another e-mail blast Wednesday afternoon after Hyde-Smith’s appointment became official. 

“Before commissioner Hyde-Smith was elected to lead the department of agriculture, her only legislative experience was that of a Democrat,” the e-mail read. “She ran as a Democrat. She served as a Democrat. She voted like a Democrat.” 

Hyde-Smith tried to get ahead of attacks on her Democratic past during her address Wednesday.

“I’ve been a conservative all my life, and I’m vey proud of my conservative record as a three-term state senator. You know the good thing about being in the Legislature is there’s a paper trail — it’s a long paper trail,” she said. “They record every vote we have. I have a record of conservatism, a record of accomplishments and getting things done for you, and that’s exactly what I will do for you as your U.S. senator.”

When asked about the McDaniel group’s open letter Wednesday, Bryant had no comment. He focused all his remarks on building up Hyde-Smith’s conservative record. 

“We like to make sure we have conservatives in our party, and that’s who we invite to come. (Hyde-Smith) has been a conservative all her life,” the governor said. “I think there are a lot of former Democrats in the State of Mississippi. If there are other conservatives who feel like the party has moved away from them, they are certainly welcome to come to the Republican Party today.”

Trump notwithstanding, Mississippi’s biggest Republicans are behind Hyde-Smith.

“Governor Phil Bryant has made an excellent and historic pick in Cindy Hyde-Smith to be our next United States Senator,” U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker said in an e-mail Wednesday. “She served admirably in the Mississippi Senate and as our Commissioner of Agriculture, and I know she will be an effective, conservative Senator from day one. I look forward to being her colleague and working with her to serve all Mississippians.” 

U.S. Third Congressional District Rep. Gregg Harper said he also fully supports Hyde-Smith’s appointment.

“Cindy Hyde-Smith is a solid conservative that will represent Mississippi well and with great integrity,” his office said. “The governor has made an excellent selection, and I look forward to serving with her in Washington, D.C.” 

Harper will not seek reelection, and another Brookhaven politician — state Sen. Sally Doty — is campaigning for his seat in Congress.

The man Hyde-Smith is replacing is also on board with her appointment. U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, who first went to the U.S. House in 1972 before becoming a senator in 1978, called Hyde-Smith’s appointment “historic.”

“She is a very well-qualified person whose experiences and excellent character will benefit our state in Washington,” his office said.

Even though a cloud of uncertainty is blocking out some of the light from Hyde-Smith’s appointment, November is a political lifetime away. After all, McDaniel has been here before — he was in excellent position during his challenge to Cochran in 2014 before losing in the 11th hour during one of the weirdest, most awkward races the state has ever seen.

For now, Hyde-Smith is Mississippi’s first female senator and only the sixth to hold one of the two offices since 1943.

“The history of this moment is not lost on me,” she said before quoting II Chronicles. “Every day I will seek His face and fight for the things that matter to me and that matter to you. I am stronger today than I think I have ever been. I feel the power of prayer.”