Mississippi’s Hyde-Smith is selling her D.C. ties and getting Trump’s help

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith believes it’s better to be seen in Washington working — and seen with President Donald Trump — than debating her opponents back in Mississippi prior to the November 6 special Senate election.

Trump is heading to Mississippi Tuesday to campaign for Hyde-Smith, who’s fighting for a U.S. Senate seat Republicans need to keep.

Hyde-Smith faces a tough Democratic challenge from former Clinton administration Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy as well as from Republican Chris McDaniel. The Senate currently has 51 Republicans, meaning a net loss of two seats allows Democrats to control the chamber next year.

Hyde-Smith, appointed only six months ago, has been waging an incumbent’s campaign.

She said she’s skipping two debates this month citing pressing business on Capitol Hill, even though colleagues in tough re-election bids like Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Bill Nelson, D-Florida and Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, aren’t letting the Senate’s October work schedule from participating in debates in their states.

“We will be in session on those days, and with such a slim majority of Republicans in the Senate, it’s razor thin, none of us can afford to miss any votes,” Hyde-Smith, R-Mississippi, told McClatchy. “The governor appointed me, and the people of Mississippi expect me to be there working. That’s a personal choice for them to be campaigning or to be there voting.”

But the Senate’s work schedule Tuesday isn’t stopping Hyde-Smith from appearing with Trump at a rally Tuesday night in Southaven, Miss., about 12 miles outside of Memphis, Tenn.

It’s been less than six months since Hyde-Smith was appointed to temporarily fill the seat of Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Mississippi, who retired in April for health reasons.

But she’s already employing an incumbent’s strategy in the so-called “jungle” election to fill the remainder of Cochran’s term. If no one gets a majority November 6, the top two finishers vie again November 27.

The race is drawing national attention because if one party winds up with a 50-49 edge in the Senate on November 6, the Mississippi runoff could decide which party controls the chamber when it convenes in January. Vice President Mike Pence would break any 50-50 tie.

Trump, who is immensely popular with Mississippi Republicans, could be a big help.

Hyde-Smith is aware that “Chris McDaniel is after her in a big way and he’s a fire-breather and she can only get singed if she gets on stage with him,” said Marty Wiseman, former director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. “And she would give Espy some visibility that she thinks he doesn’t have now if she puts him on stage with her. It remains to be seen if that’s an effective strategy.”

The strategy appears to be impacting the race. Espy Friday pulled out of the first televised debate, which is scheduled for Thursday evening at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., saying he won’t show up unless Hyde-Smith does.

“She has claimed that it would interfere with her Senate duties, yet she is able to take time to participate in other scheduled events occurring in Mississippi,” Oleta Fitzgerald, Espy’s campaign manager, wrote in a letter to the college. “A debate where the person occupying the office is not present is unacceptable to us. For these reasons, when Sen. Hyde-Smith agrees to participate, then we will be happy to participate as well.”

Several political observers think that Hyde-Smith’s Rose Garden strategy is the right approach. Why engage in a potentially messy political fight if you don’t have to?

She’s enjoying the support of establishment Republicans from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, who proclaimed last week that she’s “hit the ground running standing up for Mississippi,” to President Donald Trump, who praised Hyde-Smith in an endorsement tweet last month for voting “for our Agenda in the Senate 100% of the time.”

Hyde-Smith, who’s vying to become the first woman from Mississippi elected to Congress, used her her first Senate floor speech last week to deliver one of the strongest statements of support for Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee who is battling accusations of attempted rape and other inappropriate sexual behavior.

“I believe Judge Kavanaugh when he says these events never happened, not three decades ago, not ever,” she said.

The race is drawing national attention because if one party winds up with a 50-49 edge in the Senate on November 6, the Mississippi runoff could decide which party controls the chamber when it convenes in January. Vice President Mike Pence would break any 50-50 tie.

Former Mississippi Republican Gov. Haley Barbour and other Republicans who oppose McDaniel say Hyde-Smith is making the right move by focusing on her Washington duties.

“She’s already highly regarded by her Senate colleagues because she doesn’t talk before she thinks, she’s very thoughtful, works hard at being a senator,” Barbour said in a not-too-veiled dig at McDaniel. “Hootin’ and hollerin’ in a body like the United States Senate is not the way to be most effective.”

McDaniel has blasted Hyde-Smith’s decision not to debate, suggesting that the former Democrat would have a hard time defending her record. Hyde-Smith switched parties in 2010.

“I can’t imagine why someone running to represent our state in the U.S. Senate — which used to be known as the world’s greatest deliberative body — would avoid discussing the issues facing Mississippi, but sadly we’ve seen it before,” McDaniel said earlier this month.

“If Cindy Hyde-Smith skips these debates,” he said, “it sends the message that the so-called elites are above accountability – they don’t have to answer to the people.”

If McDaniel wants answers from Hyde-Smith in October, he may need to book a flight to Washington.

“The Mississippi people (sent) me to be there and the attendance is very important to me,” she said.

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas