This is the second article in a two-part profile on Mississippi’s first woman in Congress, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith. Read Part I here.

A few weeks into his first session in the Mississippi Senate, Sen. Billy Hudson, R-Hattiesburg, felt a tap on his shoulder as he sat at his desk reviewing legislation. He turned around to see his colleague, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, at that point in her third term as a Democratic state senator, grinning at him.

“She told me, ‘Hudson you don’t need to read these bills. If I want you to vote yes, I’ll slap you on your right ear. If I want you to vote no, I’ll slap you on your left ear.’”

Of course, Hyde-Smith was joking — at least about the ear slapping. But if it seems unlikely that Hudson, a Republican, would take the voting advice of Hyde-Smith, then a Democrat, he said it shouldn’t.

“She voted as conservative—or more so—than me (in the state Senate),” Hudson said. “I never thought of her as a Democrat or a moderate or a liberal. And her record proves that. Her record bears that out.”

State Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, has seized on Hyde-Smith’s history as a Democrat and in particular her vote in the 2008 Democratic primary, when he claims Hyde-Smith cast a ballot for then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton for president.

In doing so, McDaniel — a Republican, who, along with Democrats former U.S. Rep. Mike Espy and Tobey Bartee, faces off against Hyde-Smith in an officially nonpartisan Nov. 6 special election — hopes Republican voters see in Hyde-Smith a power-thirsty opportunist in the mold of Clinton.

Earlier this month, McDaniel’s campaign debuted a new online ad. The video opens with a still of Hillary Clinton’s face and audio of her laugh, which her detractors deride as a cackle. An unseen female narrator asks, “Do you want a Senator who voted for Hillary Clinton?” before Clinton’s face morphs into Hyde-Smith’s.

The Clinton thing has become something of a bete noire for Hyde-Smith, who in the last month has begun punctuating her own campaign speeches with denials that she “100 percent” never voted for Clinton.

Pressed on who she did vote for in the June 2008 primary, she would only say that it was someone who withdrew in January. The Democratic candidates who withdrew from the race after the Iowa caucuses that year included former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Ohio U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich as well as U.S. Sens. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Mike Gravel of Alaska, Joe Biden of Delaware and John Edwards of North Carolina.

“The biggest lie Chris McDaniel has ever told is that I voted for Hillary Clinton,” Hyde-Smith told Mississippi Today in August. “I never voted for Hillary Clinton. I never voted for Barack Obama.”

The Clinton thing

But the Clinton rumor has staying power. And this matters because, by all indicators, the four way race will likely go to a runoff between the top two contenders. Espy, who has the backing of state and national Democratic Party organizations, is almost guaranteed one of the spots while Hyde-Smith and McDaniel battle for the heart of Mississippi’s conservative coalition.

Despite McDaniel’s strategy, former Hyde-Smith colleagues from both sides of the aisle and her own voting record bolster Hyde-Smith’s claims of being a lifelong conservative, even during the 11 years she spent as a Democrat in the state Senate.  

In the 2010 legislative session, when Hyde-Smith was still a registered Democrat, her record shows that of the 10 senators who voted most like her, just one — now retired Sen. Tommy Dickerson — was a Democrat, according to data from Mississippi Statewatch. That session, she voted with McDaniel 81 percent of the time on non-unanimous votes, more than all but three of her Democratic colleagues, according to information from Statewatch, a service that tracks voting records in the Legislature.

By the next session, Hyde-Smith had switched parties and become a Republican. That year she voted with Sen. Lydia Chassaniol, R-Winona, one of the most consistent conservative votes in the state senate, 94 percent of the time. Again, of the top 10 senators with voting patterns most similar to her own, only one was a Democrat — Sen. Nicky Browning, R-Ecru, himself a Republican since 2013.

“I was the worst Democrat Mississippi’s ever seen, I really was,” Hyde-Smith told Mississippi Today during an August interview of her time in the state senate.

Mike Chaney, the state insurance commissioner, who served alongside Hyde-Smith in the Legislature, agrees — somewhat.

“She’s not a right wing conservative, but she is conservative,” Chaney said. “Maybe a little to the moderate side, but she’s a gun toter, which I always liked. And she understood the issues with the (National Rifle Association), even though she’s an NRA member.”

In 2013, after Gov. Bryant signed House Bill 2, which effectively turned Mississippi into an open-carry state, Chaney said a concerned Hyde-Smith told him she would ask for an attorney general’s opinion about how to handle the new law on the state properties she oversaw, such as the fairgrounds and the Agriculture and Forestry Museum.

“She’s very reasonable,” Chaney said. “And what’s ironic is the person who’s passed the bill, Andy Gipson, is now your new commissioner of agriculture. So careful what you vote for.”

McDaniel’s supporters have called Hyde-Smith’s move an attempt to ban guns from state property. An August letter to the editor in the Meridian Star, written by a McDaniel supporter named Rick Ward of Collins, described Hyde-Smith as “no friend to gun-owners.” Hyde-Smith said she — and several other agency heads — requested the letter as a formality.

“You really need to know exactly what that law says and how it possibly could affect the Ag Museum and the fairgrounds,” Hyde-Smith said. “There were some requests to put up signs … but I refused to put up signs that said no weapons allowed and I refused to warn anybody because we never had any issue. This is America and we have Second Amendment rights.”

This summer, Hyde-Smith signed onto a bill in Congress that would enhance concealed carry rights, and sponsored another one that prohibits federal funding for state gun registries.

The NRA cited both in the organization’s endorsement of Hyde-Smith in August.

A matter of integrity

On the night before she voted to confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Mississippi Today asked Hyde-Smith what she believes is the most important quality for an elected official from Mississippi to possess. She answered quickly: integrity.

An oft-mentioned role model in that regard is Vice President Mike Pence. In speeches, she grins when she describes how he pinned her into the U.S. Senate last spring. At that meeting, Hyde-Smith’s teenage daughter, Anna-Michael, told the vice-president that the family had even named their dog “Pence” after Trump named him his running mate in 2016.

“I say all the time, he’s washed in the blood and not the water,” said Hyde-Smith, of the vice president, her Lawrence County accent adding an “r” to the word washed. “He’s the real thing, and he has deep convictions, and he freely shares them.”

In interviews and on the stump, Hyde-Smith, a lifelong Southern Baptist, talks often about how her own convictions guide her decisions on policy, something her former state senate colleagues say is true.

“She’s very ethical, very, very ethical,” Chaney said. “I’ve never heard her tell anything that was untrue or promise anybody something that she wouldn’t do. You can’t say that about a lot of folks. She has a very acute sense of propriety, of doing the right thing at the right time.”

Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs answers questions  at a Stennis Institute press club luncheon. Credit: Adam Ganucheau, Mississippi Today

But rather than make her a hardline conservative on issues, former colleagues said Hyde-Smith’s convictions made her a pragmatist. Both Chaney and Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs, who was a Democrat in the state House when Hyde-Smith served in the state Senate, called Hyde-Smith a brilliant negotiator.

“She’s able to bring all the parties to the table and lead the negotiation. She facilitated a compromise,” Flaggs said. “She knows when to hold ’em, and knows when to fold ’em.”

When asked, Hyde-Smith agreed that finding common ground is necessary.

“I’m not a spoiled rotten brat. I’ve always accepted you don’t get everything you want all the time. But you do have to recognize the opportunities to seize most of what you want. And you’ve just got to be fair,” she said.

But Hyde-Smith’s voting record, which hasn’t once veered from Trump’s agenda, thus far reflects no evidence of a great compromiser. Flaggs, who switched his own political party affiliation from Democrat to Independent in March, said this doesn’t reflect on who Hyde-Smith is.

“How you get elected sometimes is not how you serve when you get elected. Sometimes we say what we have to say to win. But then we have to do differently. It just depends,” Flaggs said.

“I think the greatest politician will tell you that getting elected and campaigning is one thing but staying in a position is another thing.”

The woman question

Cindy Hyde-Smith speaks to supporters during a Farmers for Cindy Hyde-Smith event at Wade Inc. in Greenwood Friday, September 7, 2018. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

In the final weeks of the campaign, it’s clear that one thing Hyde-Smith doesn’t think will get her elected is running on her status as Mississippi’s first woman in Congress.

Not thinking about gender much is a common Hyde-Smith refrain but whether she admits it or not, the experiences of being a woman in politics crop up from time to time in ways that are unhelpful to the gender-neutral campaign she’s pushing.

For example, during an interview, she told Mississippi Today she would support legislation to mandate women be paid the same as men “all day long.” Even symbolic gestures to require equal pay for men and women have stalled in the Mississippi Senate.

“Whether it’s working in the courthouse or working at the cleaners, if a woman’s doing the same job as a man, I would fight all day long for that,” Hyde-Smith told Mississippi Today during an interview in her Washington, D.C., office.

Less than an hour later, Hyde-Smith’s Senate office communications director Chris Gallegos, emailed a statement “fleshing out” the senator’s comments and pulling back her statement that she would support equal-pay legislation.

“Federal law already provides protection from pay discrimination based on sex under the Equal Pay Act. As a woman and former state senator, I fully understand that it is the state and local officials who will decide what’s best for Mississippians. Federal law gives states flexibility to determine the best policies for their citizens, and I trust the judgement of leaders in Mississippi to determine how best to address wage discrepancies,” the statement quotes Hyde Smith saying.

Whether these are simple gaffes made by a politician thrust into the limelight before they were ready or deliberate assertions of her independent streak, the uncertainty of what might slip out of Hyde-Smith’s mouth in settings her handlers can’t control are precisely why her challengers have seized on her unwillingness to commit to even one debate before Nov. 6.

Few things, however, create a finer line for Republican women to walk than allegations of sexual assault, particularly those aimed at Kavanaugh. Hyde-Smith has never waivered on her belief that Ford’s accusations against the judge “are completely false.” But Hyde-Smith also joined a chorus of critics lambasting McDaniel for saying that “99 percent of sexual assault allegations are false” during an interview on conservative American Family Radio.  

“I definitely don’t believe that,” she said, taking a deep breath.

In fact, Hyde-Smith, who saw 79 of her bills become law during her time in the state senate, said what has stayed with her the most from those years are letters she received from women in her district, describing their sexual trauma.

“The only thing that really kept me awake at night is thinking about these letters that I got,” Hyde-Smith said. “I remember this one girl. She said, ‘I would just wrap myself in these sheets and just roll over in the sheets, hoping my uncle won’t get to me.’ You live with that forever.”

“Don’t ever mistake me for thinking there are not circumstances out there,” Hyde-Smith said, referring to instances of sexual assault. “As I said before, I will be your best friend. If something like that happens to you and you tell me, you can bet I will address it.”

That said, during the Kavanaugh confirmation, Hyde-Smith’s concern remained with men and she seemed irritated that anyone would suggest the accusations against Kavanaugh should resonate with her just because she is also a woman.

“I cannot imagine the humiliation that is for any man to be wrongly accused of a sexual assault. I just cannot imagine the humiliation of that. You know if you want to stick the knife in and break it off? That’s a good way to do it. And we just cannot tolerate that in any manner in any fashion,” Hyde-Smith told Mississippi Today the evening before she voted to confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

It is a curious time to downplay being Mississippi’s first woman in Congress because no year has been more politically advantageous for female candidates than 2018. As of September, a record 256 women had qualified for the November ballot in U.S. House or Senate races. Including the primaries, some 500 women ran for federal office this year, according to NBC News.

Of the record-breaking 256 women running for Congress this year, just 59—less than a quarter—are Republicans. Also, while all but one Republican woman voted to confirm Kavanaugh—and every female Democrat voted against his confirmation—among women in the Senate, just six are Republicans. Nearly three times as many, or 17, are Democrats.

“I’m sure that’s part of her political strategy to focus more on the issues. I think that traditionally feminism, if you will, or the perception of it, has been reserved for the Democratic party,” said Jenn Gregory, an assistant director at the Stennis Center for Public Service, which has offices in in Starkville and Washington, D.C., and works to attract and train young people for public service careers.

But Gregory suggested if Hyde-Smith makes the runoff against Espy, a Democrat, and no longer has to court McDaniel’s supporters on the far-right, “it’s very possible that the messaging could shift depending on a different election atmosphere.”

“I think it’s likely. She is and always will be the first woman to serve Mississippi in Congress, so this is something that I know she should be proud of and is proud of.”

Hyde-Smith, however, scoffs at the suggestion that playing down her gender, and the place in history it gives her, is strategic.

“It’s really not intentional. I just don’t think about gender that much. I just say vote for the best person. And if it’s male or female, it’s never been a big issue with me,” Hyde-Smith said by phone last week as she traveled to Biloxi for a campaign event, before pausing: “Maybe I should tout it more.”

Hyde-Smith poses with a supporter at the Women for Cindy Hyde-Smith event in Jackson in August.

The brief moment of introspection was short-lived.

Days later, Hyde-Smith’s bus tour launched from a family restaurant in Collins and she was back to stumping for Trump, echoing many of the president’s familiar talking points.

Standing at a podium, Hyde-Smith told the audience of about 35 white men and women that she had trekked the Rio Grande River in a bulletproof vest and said she supported Trump’s wall, lauded Kavanaugh’s confirmation, which now touts as a victory of good over evil, and she stressed the stakes on Election Day and what a vote for Cindy Hyde-Smith means.

If Republicans fail to maintain control of Congress, she warned: “you’re going to have Maxine Waters trying to impeach our president.”

This is part two our profile on U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith. Read part one, published Oct. 24 here.

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.