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SOUTHAVEN – Minutes before President Donald Trump spoke on Tuesday, Carol Humphries expressed strong support for state Sen. Chris McDaniel, the anti-establishment conservative gunning for the Senate seat currently held by Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith.
But as Trump walked off the stage after enthusiastically endorsing Hyde-Smith, Humphries admitted she had reconsidered her support for McDaniel.
“You know, I’m having second thoughts on that one,” she said. “I didn’t realize how much she’d helped the president. I believe the president changed my mind. He did it. He accomplished his mission. I believe I will (vote for her.)”
Swaying the minds of McDaniel supporters was the top priority for the national and state Republican Party on Tuesday.
It’s why they asked the president to visit DeSoto County, where McDaniel earned the most votes in his nearly successful 2014 Senate run. It’s why the state and national parties coordinated social media posts during Trump’s speech to amplify the endorsement. It’s why the president praised Hyde-Smith, and it’s why his speech drifted five different times to the importance of voting for Republicans in November.
It’s also why Trump and Hyde-Smith took care to raise the specter of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who is the subject of an FBI probe for allegations of sexual assault first made by a high-school classmate, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. During the speech, Trump mocked Ford and challenged her credibility and recollection of the parties where she said the attack took place.
The fact that Trump and the GOP desperately want to retain control of both chambers of Congress and particularly the Senate, where federal judicial nominees are confirmed, is also why the president painted the officially nonpartisan special election as a contest between Hyde-Smith and former U.S. Rep. and Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy; he made no mention of McDaniel’s presence in the race.
“(Hyde-Smith) has voted with me 100 percent of the time,” Trump said Tuesday night. “She’s always had my back, she’s always had your back, and a vote for Cindy is a vote for me and Make America Great Again.”
Yet McDaniel still haunts Republican operatives inside Mississippi and beyond. In 2014, the conservative state senator narrowly lost to Sen. Thad Cochran after successfully tapping into a anti-establishment base that gobbled up what they considered a populist message.
In the county where Trump spoke on Tuesday night, McDaniel earned more votes in 2014 than in any other county. As establishment Republicans try to retain a majority in the November midterms, they realize that DeSoto is a key to victory.
Though McDaniel doesn’t have the president’s support, his presence in the 2018 midterms was evident Tuesday night at the rally. When Trump introduced Hyde-Smith and at several other times when Hyde-Smith was mentioned during the speech, a group of about three dozen McDaniel supporters booed. White House pool reporters sitting nearby tweeted about the disruption.
Laura Van Overschelde, the chairwoman of the Mississippi Tea Party, told Mississippi Today that the McDaniel supporters were asked to turn their McDaniel T-shirts inside out upon entering the building.
Melissa Scallan, spokeswoman for the Hyde-Smith campaign, said in an email Tuesday night that the Trump campaign rules for the event stated “no shirts were allowed that had other candidates’ names on them except Donald Trump/Mike Pence.”
McDaniel, a strong Trump supporter, has had to reckon with the president’s endorsement of his opponent. Several of his supporters interviewed at the rally downplayed what the endorsement means to their chosen candidate.
“Just from what I’ve heard, Trump is doing his best to get Kavanaugh confirmed,” said Lee Sexton, a McDaniel supporter from Walls. “I think Mitch McConnell has a lot to do with it and what he’s pushing or threatening – I don’t know. I was kind of shocked that he was supporting Hyde-Smith until I heard the reason.”
David Smith of Hernando is a McDaniel supporter but had a different take before the rally.
“This is McDaniel country,” Smith said. “I’m a Chris McDaniel fan, but I’ll vote for (Cindy Hyde-Smith). I know the consequences. If McDaniel splits the vote with her, we could get a Democrat slipping in.”
When asked about Trump’s endorsement, Hyde-Smith’s supporters soaked up the moment.
“I’ve known (Hyde-Smith) for a long time,” said Kathy Irwin of Southaven. “She’s been really great, and to be honest, I think she would be really good for the area. I think she’s got a lot of good intentions.”
“I’ve worked with Cindy for about 10 years,” said Mike Ferguson, a farmer from Senatobia. “The tariffs have affected me on the short term, but for the first time in my lifetime, we have an administration that’s actually stood up for the dairy farmer or any farmer for that matter.”