Republicans fear Cochran replacement puts Senate seat at risk

Republicans fear Cochran replacement puts Senate seat at risk
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpDem senator says Zelensky was 'feeling the pressure' to probe Bidens 2020 Dems slam Trump decision on West Bank settlements Trump calls latest impeachment hearings 'a great day for Republicans' MORE and Republican leaders are concerned that retiring Sen. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranMike Espy announces Mississippi Senate bid Biden has a lot at stake in first debate The Hill's Morning Report — Trump turns the page back to Mueller probe MORE's (R-Miss.) replacement will be vulnerable in a special election because she was once a Democrat, making the seat susceptible to a challenge from a candidate opposed by the Republican establishment.

State Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) was tapped by Gov. Phil Bryant (R) to serve out the rest of Cochran’s term after he leaves April 1 over health issues. Hyde-Smith will be the first female senator from Mississippi, boosting the ranks of women in the Senate to a record 23. 

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White House officials reportedly warned Bryant that Trump wouldn't endorse Hyde-Smith if he appointed her. GOP leaders are also staying on the sidelines for now, after previously urging Bryant to appoint himself to the seat.

A special election to serve out the last two years of Cochran’s term will take place on Nov. 6 in a “jungle primary,” where all candidates from both parties compete in the same race. If no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers advance to a runoff three weeks later

Republicans are worried that Hyde-Smith, who switched her party affiliation to Republican in 2010, is a poor candidate to take on conservative firebrand Chris McDaniel.

McDaniel, a Tea Party favorite, rattled the establishment in 2014 when he came close to unseating Cochran in a brutal primary fight. McDaniel frequently rails against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Health Care: GOP senator says drug price action unlikely this year | House panel weighs ban on flavored e-cigs | New York sues Juul McConnell hopes Senate impeachment trial 'not too lengthy a process' Former Speaker Boehner's official portrait unveiled MORE (R-Ky.) and has made attacks on McConnell a centerpiece of his new campaign for the Cochran seat. 

Internal Republican polling showed Hyde-Smith behind both McDaniel and a Democratic candidate, Politico reported.

McDaniel, a Republican state senator, was initially going to run a primary challenge against Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerSenate Democrats unveil priorities for federal privacy bill Microsoft embraces California law, shaking up privacy debate Trump circuit court nominee in jeopardy amid GOP opposition MORE (R-Miss.), who is up for reelection in 2018. But Trump foreclosed McDaniel’s chances for that seat when he threw his support behind Wicker. Shortly after Cochran’s seat opened up, McDaniel switched races.

While the White House hasn’t publicly commented on the Hyde-Smith pick, Bryant voiced confidence on Wednesday that she’d get the president’s support, according to The Clarion-Ledger. Plus, both the Senate committees and outside groups with ties to McConnell typically back incumbents — including senators who have been appointed to their seats.

GOP strategists who support Hyde-Smith defended Trump’s reluctance to pick sides in the special election.

They cited 2017’s Alabama Senate special election as a cautionary tale for Trump, who first endorsed Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeState 'certificate of need' laws need to go GOP frets over nightmare scenario for Senate primaries Roy Moore trails Republican field in Alabama MORE in that race, only to see him lose the primary to Republican insurgent Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreFormer AG Sessions enters Alabama Senate race Campaign ad casts Sessions as a 'traitor' ahead of expected Senate run Doug Jones on potential challenge from Sessions: Alabama GOP primary will be 'really divisive' MORE. Then Trump endorsed Moore, who went on to lose what should have been a safely Republican seat to a Democrat, now-Sen. Doug Jones.

“I can understand why the White House is moving cautiously after Alabama. I thought it was a reasonable reaction from the White House,” a Mississippi GOP strategist told The Hill.

McDaniel and his allies quickly seized on Hyde-Smith’s Democratic past, indicating that her party switch will be a large part of their strategy.

Hyde-Smith served as a state senator from 2000 to 2012, but switched her party affiliation from Democrat to Republican in 2010. In 2011, Hyde-Smith won the state agriculture commissioner race running as a Republican.

McDaniel called Hyde-Smith a Democrat eight times in a statement responding to the pick. He also wrote an open letter to Trump asking him not to endorse her, saying that Hyde-Smith could lose the seat to Democrats. 

“Knowing the establishment's opposition to conservatives, it was not at all surprising that they would choose a former Democrat,” McDaniel said. “Instead of unifying around my candidacy, and beating the Democrats, the establishment is once again going to waste millions of dollars of donors' money over what should have been a safe Republican seat in Mississippi."

While GOP leaders in Washington are cautious about Hyde-Smith, federal and local GOP lawmakers in Mississippi are rallying behind Hyde-Smith. Wicker sent out a release that praised her appointment and touted her tenure in the state legislature and as agriculture commissioner. 

Hyde-Smith has argued that she’s always been a conservative and has the voting record to prove it. Her Republican supporters say she has strong conservative credentials, and her profile as a rancher could resonate with voters in the agriculture community. 

Democrats haven’t won a Senate seat in Mississippi since 1982. But some Republicans believe that McDaniel could bring on another Democratic upset if he emerges as the leading Republican in the race.

McDaniel has a loyal conservative base and support from a super PAC, Remember Mississippi PAC. But he’s also been accused of racially charged comments, including calling Hispanic women “mamacitas.”

And McDaniel could be dogged by ugly headlines from the 2014 Cochran race, which saw McDaniel supporters publish images of Cochran’s bedridden wife and ended with arrests for some activists involved in the scheme.

Republicans concede that Democrats have fielded a strong challenger: former Rep. Mike Espy, who also served in the Clinton administration as the country’s first African-American secretary of Agriculture. They believe he’ll be able to mount a formidable challenge and mobilize black voters in a state where they make up more than a third of the voting-age population. 

But Espy also has his own hurdles to overcome. He left his position as Agriculture secretary in 1994 amid allegations that he improperly took gifts, though he was ultimately acquitted of corruption charges.

The state is also solidly Republican: Trump won Mississippi in 2016 by nearly 18 percentage points.

“This seat is only at risk if money flows in from out of state to support McDaniel,” the Republican strategist said. “If [Espy] were to be in a race against McDaniel, it’s a 50-50 proposition as to who’s going to win that. Espy in the runoff with Cindy Hyde-Smith, it’s a race he can’t win.”

Other Republicans are still considering bids, including attorney Andy Taggart, the former chief of staff of the late Gov. Kirk Fordice. He’s been weighing a run aimed at defeating McDaniel, but Republicans say his candidacy would do more harm to Hyde-Smith and put Democrats in a better position to take the seat.

Hyde-Smith supporters are still hoping for a Trump endorsement. But they also say that Washington should largely stay out of the race and leave the fight to Republicans in the state. 

“We don’t need Washington trying to dictate the race, which was part of the problem in Alabama,” the GOP strategist said. “Certainly we want President Trump to support her when he’s ready. Otherwise, this race needs to be fought in Mississippi by Mississippians.”