Mississippi Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith, left, thanks Gov. Phil Bryant, center, for selecting her to succeed fellow Republican Thad Cochran in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday in Brookhaven.


BROOKHAVEN — Eight years ago, Cindy Hyde-Smith was a Democratic state senator who struggled to get bills passed by Republican leadership, including then-Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant.

On Wednesday, Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith, now a Republican, to be the first woman to represent Mississippi in Congress, replacing retiring U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran. The announcement came here in her hometown.

“She will serve the U.S. Senate with honor,” Bryant said. “We need all Mississippians to stand with us if we are to succeed.”

Hyde-Smith said she was “proud to stand here today. I did not know this day would come. It is amazing that it is here.”

“I am humbled by the trust and confidence that your announcement today puts in me,” she said. “I pledge to serve all Mississippians with dignity, honor, and respect.”

State Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, talks to reporters earlier in March bout his bid for the U.S. Senate.

Hyde-Smith, the 58-year-old cattle farmer who has served as state Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce since her election in 2011, will serve temporarily in the seat vacated by Cochran until a Nov. 6 special election, which already features arch-conservative state Sen. Chris McDaniel.

The selection of Hyde-Smith came under fire as it was being announced with Politico reporting that the White House did not back the selection., though traditional Republicans released supportive statements by early afternoon.

“Governor Phil Bryant has made an excellent and historic pick in Cindy Hyde-Smith to be our next United States Senator,” said Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, who faces his own election this year. “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.”

Tommy Barnett, treasurer of the Remember Mississippi political action committee that backs McDaniel, issued a caustic statement: “In a betrayal of conservative, tea party principles, Governor Bryant was left to choose from his third or fourth string bench to find a willing candidate to run in November. Cindy Hyde-Smith, an opportunistic politician who switched from Democrat to Republican for her own political gain and would have supported either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton in 2008, is already behind McDaniel on what Mississippi voters care about.”

Cindy Hyde-Smith was named Mississippi’s next U.S. senator at an event Wednesday in Brookhaven with her family, to her left, and Gov. Phil Bryant and his wife.

About 200 people, many holding “Cindy Hyde-Smith U.S. Senate” signs, gathered outside the old train depot downtown for the announcement at noon.

Hyde-Smith’s husband Michael and daughter Anna Michael joined the governor and new senator on stage, as did Bryant’s wife Deborah.

Hyde-Smith walked through several political issues in a 10-minute speech, including her desire to “repeal Obamacare,” “fight for the rights of the unborn child,” and support “Second Amendment rights.”

Several Republican officials and operatives were in the crowd, including state GOP Chairman Lucien Smith.

McDaniel issued his own blistering response, noting Hyde-Smith’s Democratic Party roots and he pointed to the recent special U.S. Senate election in Alabama: “The establishment should have learned their lesson in Alabama. By spending millions of dollars against conservative Mo Brooks, they ended up losing the seat to a Democrat. Now, they are going to appoint one in Mississippi. 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.”

“Fortunately, Mississippi Republicans now know what happens when the establishment tries to handpick their representatives for them – we end up losing seats and wasting money,” McDaniel continued. “The fact is, the DC establishment would rather let a Democrat have the seat than let a conservative win. Mississippi needs to send a conservative to Washington to drain the swamp, and if elected, that is what I intend to do.”

A native of Brookhaven and fifth-generation farmer, Hyde-Smith said she will run in the special election to serve the remainder of the Cochran term through 2020.

The special election is open to candidates from any party without limit. If no one earns a 50 percent majority, the top two vote-getters will square off in a runoff.

As Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner, she has overseen the $7.6 billion agriculture industry, the state’s largest industry, employing 29 percent of the state’s workforce, according to the Mississippi Development Authority.

Through her personal life and political careers, Hyde-Smith has close ties with the Big Ag lobby and Mississippi family farmers – two groups that Cochran has curried favor with for decades.

Elected in 2011, Hyde-Smith is one of only four women to hold statewide elected office in Mississippi and the first woman to hold the position of Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce. State Treasurer Lynn Fitch and former lieutenant governors Amy Tuck and Evelyn Gandy are the other women to hold statewide elected office. No woman has been elected governor of Mississippi.

Though Hyde-Smith will be the state’s first woman to serve in Congress, Mississippi and Vermont remain the only two states which have never elected a woman to Congress.

Hyde-Smith began her political career in the state Senate, where she was first elected in 1999 as a Democrat. She served nearly three full terms there as a Democrat until she switched parties in December 2010, just a few months before she ran as a Republican in the 2011 statewide primary for Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce.

In that election, she beat Republican opponents in the party primary and then bested Democrat Joel Gill and Reform candidate Cathy Toole in the general, winning 53 percent of votes.

According to voting records, Hyde-Smith voted in several Democratic primaries in the 2000s, including the 2007 gubernatorial primary, and the 2008 presidential primary that featured former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

A supporter holds a sign supporting Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith.

When Hyde-Smith was a Democratic senator and Bryant led the Senate, she was the primary author of 181 bills. In that span, 145 of them died.

Though she has long ties to the Democratic Party, Hyde-Smith has touted her fiscally conservative roots, and she has said she voted as a conservative even when she was a Democrat.

She served on the agriculture advisory committee for President Trump’s campaign in 2016, and she is a longtime advocate for the Second Amendment and active member of the National Rifle Association.

“The things that are near and dear to me as a Democrat are still near and dear to me as a Republican,” Hyde-Smith said in a 2011 Fox News interview shortly after she flipped parties. “I live in the South. We want to bear arms. Private property rights, very passionate to me.”

“People in Mississippi, we live within our means,” she continued. “We’re cattle farmers in Brookhaven. You can’t go out and spend everything we have just because things are good right now. You have to prepare, you have to plan, you have to have a strategy to take care of every issue as it comes along.”

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., left, is congratulated by Gov. Phil Bryant, right, and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves on winning re-election to the U.S. Senate on Nov. 4, 2014.

The appointment puts to rest weeks of speculation over whom Bryant might select to replace Cochran, whose health has declined steadily over the years. Speculation grew more intense after Cochran announced on March 5 that he would retire on April 1, forcing Bryant to name a temporary successor. It was an open, yet unconfirmed, secret in recent days that Bryant had settled on Hyde-Smith as his pick.  

Bryant was said to have considered appointing himself to the seat at the urging of President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican. Other scenarios involved appointing top legislative leaders, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves or Speaker Philip Gunn, or other statewide officials, including Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann.

Before making the decision, Bryant had considered if Hyde-Smith could stand on her own in a crowded – and officially nonpartisan – special election this fall. McDaniel’s recent decision to drop his challenge against U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker and run for the open slot added a new complication given McDaniel’s enthusiastic anti-Republican establishment base.

“I think they would get very good conservative representation if she were chosen,” said Hyde-Smith’s successor, state Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven. “That’s what the people in southwest Mississippi and all over the state of Mississippi are looking for.”

“I think it would be perfect for her to fill that role for us,” Doty continued. “She’s been in D.C. a good bit. She’s had a good relationship with (U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary) Sonny Perdue. I think it’d be a big win for Mississippi.”

As a newcomer to politics in 1999, Hyde-Smith unseated veteran state Sen. W.L. Rayborn of Brookhaven in the Democratic primary in a 53 percent to 47 percent victory.

Early on, she supported measures to collect DNA samples from all people in custody of the Department of Corrections and authored a bill to ban most abortions after 12 weeks. After the abortion restriction bill passed and was signed by Gov. Haley Barbour, it was rejected by the federal courts.

As chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, she also helped manage the fallout from the controversial beef-plant that defaulted on a $55 million state loan. The state sued several firms involved in the construction of the 400-employee plant in Yalobusha County that abruptly closed three months after it opened, in August 2004.

“My number one interest has been in protecting the state’s investment and trying to work this out for the best situation we can for cattle producers and the state of Mississippi,” Hyde-Smith said then.

The state settled with owners of the plant in 2012 for $4 million.

While in the Senate she was for a time the vice chairwoman for the National Council of State Legislature’s agriculture committee.

During her first run for agriculture commissioner she said she wanted to advocate for the state’s farmers, particularly women in the field.

“I want to promote agriculture in general, but I feel even more responsibility for our female farmers,” Hyde-Smith told the Mississippi Business Journal at the time. “I want to help raise the comfort level of women when it comes to agriculture.”

In her 2015 re-election bid, Hyde-Smith won with 61 percent of the vote over Democrat Addie Lee Green, a member of the Bolton town council, and Reform candidate Cathy Toole.

Here is a link to the official statement put out by Hyde-Smith.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Take our 2023 reader survey

Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.

Ryan L. Nave, a native of University City, Mo., served as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief from May 2018 until April 2020. Ryan began his career with Mississippi Today February 2016 as an original member of the editorial team. He became news editor August 2016. Ryan has a bachelor’s in political science from the University of Missouri-Columbia and has worked for Illinois Times and served as news editor for the Jackson Free Press.