Cindy Hyde-Smith is her own woman — she just doesn’t want anyone to know it

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In this image from video provided by Senate TV, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine., speaks on the Senate floor about her vote on Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, Friday, Oct. 5, 2018 in the Capitol in Washington. Sen Shelly Capito, R-W.Va., sits rear left and Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith sits right. (Senate TV via AP)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — By sunset, newly appointed Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith had been going for over 12 hours.

When she wasn’t on the Senate floor, where she’d voted the morning of Oct. 5 to begin Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court, she was at the National Republican Senatorial Committee offices conducting a tele-town hall and multiple calls with supporters. Most Fridays, Hyde-Smith would be back in Mississippi, campaigning for the special election, just 32 days away. But the Kavanaugh vote held the Senate hostage. Campaigning over the phone would have to do.

Meanwhile, outside the NRSC offices on Second Street, Victoria Lord had also had a long day. The D.C. resident, who came out to protest Kavanaugh’s nomination, had been holding up her “Believe Survivors” poster long enough that the guards inside the building had called the police on her three times.

She felt discouraged and angry. That afternoon she had watched Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, give a speech on the Senate floor, announcing that she would vote to confirm Kavanaugh. Behind Collins during the 45-minute speech, at desks normally occupied by male colleagues, sat two Republican women, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va, and Hyde-Smith.

Later, Hyde-Smith, who was appointed this spring to fill retiring Sen. Thad Cochran’s seat, would explain the decision to sit behind Collins as a spontaneous “thing to make her feel more comfortable” rather than a calculated move. But having three women fill the camera lens was also a visual argument that Republicans could support Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault, without betraying women.

Victoria Lord stands outside the National Republican Senatorial Committee offices on Oct. 5, the day the U.S. Senate voted to begin the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court

“I think there’s a particular type of woman who’s no different from a man in that she’s willing to sell her integrity for money and power. Unfortunately, the Republicans seem to have a few women like that,” said Lord, incredulously.

So when the glass doors of the Reagan Center opened and Hyde-Smith walked out, wearing  the same gray pantsuit and pink shirt she’d worn behind Collins that afternoon, Lord started shouting at the Mississippi senator.

Hyde-Smith glanced in Lord’s direction, then fixed her eyes on her waiting SUV. Shoulders tense, she slipped past a staffer and into the backseat as the car pulled away. Told that Hyde-Smith was the first woman Mississippi had sent to Congress, Lord said more quietly: “Well, fuck her. And shame on her.”

The stakes

The next day, sitting back in the large Senate office that Sen. Cochran occupied until recently, Hyde-Smith waved off the Lord incident.

“I take freedom of speech very seriously, and everyone needs to have that opportunity,” Hyde-Smith said. “I guess maybe screaming at you’s not that respectful. As long as they’re not in my personal space, you know, that’s part of this job.”

Right now, the most important part of Hyde-Smith’s job is holding onto it in the Nov. 6 special election, which makes it easy, and perhaps even advantageous, for the 59-year-old senator to brush off animosity from activists like Lord.

After all, Lord is not exactly in the demographic most coveted by Hyde-Smith. What she wants are Trump supporters. And proving her allegiance to the president, his policies and his federal court nominees has meant shedding any semblance of independence — much less feminism — in her heated campaign for reelection.

Hyde-Smith talks to supporters at Mitchell Farms on Saturday, the first day of her statewide bus tour.

This isn’t always easy. Hyde Smith is not just the first woman Mississippi has sent to Congress, she is one of six Republican women in the U.S. Senate. She is also the only woman running against three men in this special election, and if her bid is successful, she’ll be the first woman Mississippi has elected to a seat in Congress.

But when she’s out on the campaign trail Hyde-Smith does more than downplay the one thing that has cemented her place in history — she doesn’t mention it at all.

“I don’t know why we didn’t (mention it). I don’t think anyone thought about it. It’s huge. It going to go down in history,” said Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, who introduced Hyde-Smith at an August Women for Cindy Hyde Smith event in Jackson. “But I do think they need to boast about it more because I think women will respond to that.”

One thing Hyde-Smith, a fifth-generation farmer from Brookhaven, does like to say—on the stump and in conversations—is “this is not all about Cindy.”

When her statewide bus tour launched Saturday, this was apparent. Each side of the bus features a banner and a six-foot photo of Hyde-Smith with President Trump. Before the bus tour rolled out, Hyde-Smith, citing Capitol Hill duties, had done relatively few campaign events in the state and avoided stepping onto a debate stage with her rivals.  

Hyde-Smith’s campaign bus features a six-foot photograph of her with President Trump

In the past two months, Mississippi Today traveled to more than half a dozen of Hyde-Smith’s campaign events. The publication spoke to her supporters and colleagues from her days in state government. Most importantly, Mississippi Today conducted interviews with Hyde-Smith, including two in her Washington, D.C., office the weekend of Kavanaugh’s confirmation. During these conversations, a picture emerged of a more complicated Hyde-Smith, who despite her service in the state senate and as a statewide office holder, remains largely unknown to most Mississippians.

Speaking with Mississippi Today, Hyde-Smith in turn blasted Kavanaugh’s foes and spoke passionately about supporting sexual assault survivors. In one unguarded moment, she expressed discomfort with Trump’s mockery of Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, which came at the Southaven rally in early October where Trump endorsed Hyde-Smith.

At that event, Trump parodied Ford’s statements to the Senate Judiciary Committee, when she testified that she could not remember some details of a night in the early 1980s when she said she believed Kavanaugh and his friend, Mark Judge, tried to rape her. The president’s remarks drew laughs and applause from the audience. 

But Trump’s comments about Ford’s testimony also drew swift rebuke, even from some Republicans. Hyde-Smith was not among them, saying in a statement the next day that the crowd’s laughter “simply reflects a deep frustration with how this process has been politicized.”

But when asked directly how it felt to listen to the president mocking Kavanaugh’s accuser as she waited to join him at the podium, Hyde-Smith looks down and then inhales.

Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press

President Donald Trump kisses Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., after introducing her at a rally Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018, in Southaven, Miss.

“You know, I just can speak for myself. I would have never done that. I can’t speak for the president, but I’d have never done that,” Hyde-Smith said, declining to elaborate when pressed further on the issue.

If delivered during a debate, such an off-the-cuff confession would undoubtedly provide fodder for state Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, a firebrand who nearly bested Cochran in a primary four years ago and whose own comments on the speciousness of sexual assault allegations have garnered national headlines — and comparisons to Trump.

And in the closing weeks of the campaign, Team Cindy understands that their fight going into Election Day is not against Mike Espy, the Democratic former congressman and Clinton agriculture secretary, but McDaniel. 

As with Lord, the feminist activist in Washington, Hyde-Smith shakes off McDaniel and his most repeated line of attack — doubts about her loyalty to conservative ideals — as a non-issue.

“When you have a conservative governor like Phil Bryant, he would never appoint someone that he thought wasn’t a hundred percent (conservative),” Hyde-Smith told Mississippi Today. “There’s a reason (McDaniel) doesn’t bring up my record. You will never hear him talk about my record.”

Wearing Trump’s jersey

The record Hyde-Smith is referring to is her voting record in the U.S. Senate. Since her swearing in in April, Hyde-Smith’s votes have aligned with Trump’s agenda 100 percent of the time, the only U.S. senator with that track record.

Total allegiance to Trump is important to both Hyde-Smith and the president, who waited until late August, nearly five months after Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith to the U.S. Senate, to give her his endorsement.

And in DeSoto County, where McDaniel clobbered Cochran in 2014 by a margin of nearly 40 points, Trump’s praise of Hyde-Smith boiled down to praise of his own agenda. Hailing the senator as “a true patriot” he told the crowd, “Cindy has voted with me 100 percent of the time. 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.”

Recent polls indicate that Trump’s visit to DeSoto County may have given Hyde-Smith the boost she needed. But Hyde-Smith, whom an NBC News/Marist poll shows got a bump of as much as 14 points after the early October rally, bristles at the suggestion that she’s a rubber stamp for Trump’s agenda.

Hyde-Smith received the endorsement of the National Association of Home Builders in Ridgeland, Miss., in September.

“We share the same conservative values. When you’re on the same team and you wear the same jersey … you think alike and you believe in the same things. You happen to be on the same page,” said Hyde-Smith.

Hyde-Smith’s values can be gleaned from a review of the some 46 active bills she has co-sponsored, which include predictably conservative measures such as rolling back protections for labor unions, expanding concealed carry laws and three bills further regulating abortion. Mississippi has just one clinic where abortions are performed. One of these bills would make it a federal crime to transport a minor across state lines for an abortion without parental permission, making it difficult for a woman under 18 to have an abortion anywhere in the country but the clinic Jackson.

For Hyde-Smith, who has been anti-abortion since her days as a state senator, abortion opposition is “one of those things I don’t compromise.”

“I have one child. I wished I had a dozen. But to think it’s up to a human to determine whether another human lives or not is pretty strong,” Hyde-Smith told Mississippi Today from her office on the morning she cast her final vote to confirm Kavanaugh.

In addition, Hyde-Smith has also signed onto more than a dozen noncontroversial bipartisan bills that would directly benefit Mississippi, such as funding rural infrastructure projects, expanding care for medically fragile children and promoting agriculture and hunting. Hyde-Smith is the sole author of another three bills — two that benefit veterans and one that would prohibit federal funding of state gun registries.

Despite criticizing McDaniel for ignoring her strong conservative voting record, she rarely dwells on the specifics herself when she’s on the stump. Starting in July, she hammered the importance of confirming Kavanaugh, Trump’s Supreme Court pick. Then, she told a Greenwood crowd she was working to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, one of Trump’s biggest campaign promises. She’s praised the president’s hardline on tariffs with China and Canada, even to the farmers and contractors who stand to lose the most from a trade war.

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. Billy Hudson, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee

Former colleagues from the state senate, including Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney and state Sen. Bill Hudson, R-Hattiesburg, describe Hyde-Smith as a workaholic.

“If she’s got a quality, it’s that she works too hard. She doesn’t stop to eat or sleep,” Hudson said. “She loves Mississippi. She loves our farmers and lots of other people in this state, and she just wants to do a good job.”

Hyde-Smith sees herself this way, too. On the day the FBI handed down its final report on Kavanaugh, Hyde-Smith said she spent three hours studying the report in the secure Senate room. She listened to the full FBI briefing and then, she said, sitting next to Collins, she reviewed every page of the one hard copy that the FBI had provided to senators.

“I’m just a simple woman from Lawrence County, Mississippi,” she said. “You bring me a set of circumstances (and say) ‘this is what you need to weigh out, and guess what? You’re in a position that you get a vote of yes or no.’ I’m going to do my due diligence. I’m going to dive in neck first.”

Southern girl

But Hyde-Smith didn’t exactly dive in neck first when the opportunity to become a U.S. senator first arose.

“This was never on the radar. This was never a goal. It was something that I did not want to do,” she told Mississippi Today.

At campaign events around the state, Hyde-Smith laughs when she describes the phone call she got from Gov. Bryant, officially asking her to replace Cochran.

“The governor said, ‘You’re the only one who didn’t ask me for the job,” she told a crowd in Jackson in August.

What followed next for Hyde-Smith, who still attends Macedonia Baptist Church when she’s home from D.C. on the weekends, was deep reflection and prayer. She now calls it her “best decision ever.”

In Washington, Hyde-Smith temporarily inherited Cochran’s second-row center desk on the Senate floor, along with his ground-floor Dirksen Building office and the Kurtzman baby grand piano the senator often played. The decor, with its green walls, embroidered upholstery and wood paneling, has a staid, masculine feel that doesn’t quite match the casual persona Hyde-Smith tries to project.

But Hyde-Smith won’t have the chance to redecorate. If reelected, she’ll become part of the office shuffle and Cochran’s grand suite, occupied by Bobby Kennedy when he was a senator in the 1960s, will go to a more senior member.

Sen. Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian, and then-Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, D-Brookhaven, review appropriation and revenue bills at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Monday, April 14, 2008.

Of course, Hyde-Smith is used to being a woman in a man’s world. Before she was Mississippi’s first female U.S. senator, she was the state’s first female agriculture commissioner and the first female state senator from District 39.

A self-described “major tomboy,” she grew up riding horses on her grandparents’ Lawrence County farm. She jumped on her first dirt bike at age six and still rides one most weekends she’s home from Washington. When she turned 7, her dad taught her how to drive—on a tractor.

And so, she told Mississippi Today, she seldom thinks about how being a woman has factored into her political career, though she concedes there may have been some patriarchal opposition to her ascent.

“The opportunities have been there, and I felt like God called me to them,” Hyde-Smith said. “I thought there might be a little resistance from the general public from being the commissioner of agriculture but it was (just a) very, very few crusty old guys.”

Still, being a woman has presented unique challenges for Hyde-Smith. On the cold winter day in 1999 when she qualified to run for the state senate, her daughter Anna-Michael was just five weeks old and, as Hyde-Smith describes it, holding up two index fingers, “that long.” That first session, she said was “pretty tough,” with daily hour-long commutes from her Brookhaven farm to the capitol in Jackson.

“You know, just the hardest thing I’ve ever prayed about was who would keep my child if I won when I was in session,” Hyde-Smith said. “I said, ‘Lord I’m going to leave this baby if I’m elected, but it’s in your hands and we’re just going to follow your lead.’”

Hyde-Smith’s political ambition was not ascending the ranks of power in Mississippi but simply to unseat an incumbent senator, W.L. Rayborn, a 20-year veteran of the Legislature whom she describes as more interested in representing himself than Mississippi’s District 39. She had twice supported his opponents, both men, in Democratic primaries, but neither could oust him.

“And I just kind of thought I’m going to have to do this myself,” Hyde-Smith said. “He and I did not share the same values. And, you know, I just felt like it was more about him than it was to move Mississippi forward.”

With typical small-town gentility, Hyde-Smith repeatedly refuses to criticize Rayborn by name or even specify what her issues with him were. But Rayborn, an eccentric, was known for a pet cause — allowing non-dentists to make false teeth. A denturist without a dental degree himself, he would show up to the capitol a few days each session adorned with buttons, stickers and signs promoting his bill, titled “The Freedom of Choice Dentures Act.” In 1999, his last year in office, it died in committee.

On the campaign trail, there is always a moment in Hyde-Smith’s speeches where she stops and points to her lapel, where her U.S. Senate pin rests. She recounts how Vice President Mike Pence pinned it himself after swearing her in on the Senate floor and told her, “Cindy, this pin will get you in any door in Washington, D.C.”

Then she pauses, looks out at her audience, as she did at an August campaign event in Jackson, and says, “But that’s not my pin. That’s your pin. This is everyone in this room’s pin. This is not all about Cindy Hyde-Smith, I assure you. I’m there for Mississippi. I’m there to protect religious freedoms, and I’m there to carry out this very, very conservative agenda.”

Adam Ganucheau, Mississippi Today

Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs answers questions at the Stennis Institute press club luncheon.

Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs, who was a Democrat in the Mississippi House during Hyde-Smith’s time in the state Senate, says it’s not a schtick.  

“She’s saying ‘I represent you. I’m here for you,’ and I believe she means it. She’s humble,” said Flaggs, now an Independent.  

On a recent Saturday trip to Walmart, Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, said she was surprised to look up and see Sen. Hyde-Smith in the produce section.

“And I said, ‘I’ve never seen a U.S. Senator grocery shopping.’ And she said ‘then you’d have been real shocked if you’d seen me cleaning my house this morning,'” said Currie. “But Cindy is just Cindy. The Southern girl thing, it’s not put on.”

Read Part II of our profile of Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith here, where she dishes about equal pay and gives more clues about her controversial vote in the 2008 Democratic primary.