Under pressure at Neshoba, Cindy Hyde-Smith hits a wall of Chris McDaniel supporters

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NESHOBA COUNTY FAIR – Cindy Hyde-Smith is plenty familiar with delivering political speeches from the main stage on Founder’s Square.

As Mississippi’s agriculture commissioner for more than six years, the fair – home to livestock shows, pony pulls, 4-H displays and politicking for farmers – had been among the most comfortable events for the longtime cattle farmer.

But Hyde-Smith’s appearance this year was anything but comfortable as she, for the first time in her political career, headlined the week’s speeches as a U.S. senator.

Staring down a crowd of nearly 100 raucous supporters of Chris McDaniel, her anti-establishment challenger in the November special election, Hyde-Smith stumbled at times in her speech, walking right into criticisms McDaniel has lodged for months.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today

U.S. Senate Republican candidate Cindy Hyde gives a speech during the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss. Thursday, August 2, 2018.

“I have been a conservative my entire life, and I am enjoying that record,” Hyde-Smith said during the speech, garnering extended jeers from the McDaniel supporters, who have for weeks listened to their candidate publicly challenge Hyde-Smith’s conservatism.

While serving for three terms in the state Senate, Hyde-Smith was a registered Democrat until 2010, when she switched parties to run for statewide office. Voting records show that Hyde-Smith voted in the Democratic presidential primary in 2008, which featured frontrunners Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

“Cindy Hyde-Smith would like us to forget that she is a lifelong Democrat,” McDaniel said in a July press release. “She was a Democrat during the Reagan administration. She was a Democrat during the 1994 Republican Revolution. She was a Democrat when the Tea Party was mobilizing millions of voters. She voted for Democrats in Democratic primaries up until she switched to be a Republican in name only to run for statewide office.”

For at least the third time, Hyde-Smith publicly mentioned how surprised she was to be appointed to serve in the Senate – a clear point of contention among many McDaniel supporters who listened to her speech on Thursday.

Another tense moment came when Hyde-Smith offered her thanks to retired Sen. Thad Cochran, whose seat she filled in April. McDaniel in 2014 nearly defeated Cochran in the Republican primary – a race he never conceded, even saying this year that “we felt we won in 2014.”

“Senator Cochran did us all so many favors for so many years,” Hyde-Smith said, garnering even louder boos from the McDaniel supporters.

As Hyde-Smith spoke about her support of President Donald Trump, the massive tax cut package championed by Republicans in Congress and her approach to serving the state of Mississippi, McDaniel supporters continuously lobbed jeers her way. She acknowledged the McDaniel crowd three different times.

You know, they’re easy to recognize,” Hyde-Smith said at one point, referring to McDaniel supporters. “You hear them? They’re easy to recognize.”

While Hyde-Smith spoke, Neshoba County Fair security officers walked inside the pavilion and stood near the McDaniel supporters as they continued hurling insults. At least a dozen McDaniel supporters held handmade signs that said “Debate!” — echoing a public plea McDaniel has made in requesting that Hyde-Smith debate him. Others waved handheld state flags bearing the Confederate emblem.

The drama wasn’t limited to just Hyde-Smith’s speech, however. During McDaniel’s speech, two young men held posters near the stage with two quotes McDaniel gave during the 2016 presidential primary, when he supported U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

“Trump is not a constitutional conservative, he’s just not,” one of the posters read, crediting the quote to McDaniel in 2016.

A visibly irritated McDaniel supporter asked the men which candidate they were supporting. When they refused to answer, he said, “Figures. Cowards.” Later, a McDaniel campaign volunteer video recorded the men as they were approached by another man wearing a Hyde-Smith T-shirt. That man directed the young men to the back of the pavilion stage, where McDaniel would soon be talking to reporters.

Later in the morning, McDaniel supporters also jeered Gov. Phil Bryant, who spoke after Hyde-Smith. Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith in April, even after dozens of McDaniel supporters and Tea Party activists asked Bryant to appoint McDaniel.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today

Governor Phil Bryant gives a speech during the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss. Thursday, August 2, 2018.

In efforts to pressure Bryant into appointing him to the Senate, McDaniel announced he would run for the special election to fill the seat vacated by Cochran before Bryant announced Hyde-Smith’s appointment. Bryant didn’t miss the chance to slam McDaniel for the stunt, calling it “opportunistic behavior” and “a sad commentary for a young man who once had great potential.”

“Most of those people voted for me. I recognize a lot of them,” Bryant said of the McDaniel supporters’ jeers after his speech on Thursday. “People get the chance to support who they want to support. I’m not one to tell them who they can or can’t and argue about that. I’m going to support Cindy Hyde-Smith. They can support Chris McDaniel. We’re going to have, hopefully, a fair, clean, respectable election because we can’t turn this Senate seat over to a Democrat.”

Interestingly, the McDaniel supporters remained tame during Sen. Roger Wicker’s speech. McDaniel had originally filed paperwork to run against Wicker this year but opted to run in the special election when Cochran retired.