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Mississippi Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith, left, is welcomed as the newest member of the U.S. Senate by Vice President Mike Pence, right, as she is joined by her husband, Michael Smith, center, and Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, far left, during a ceremonial swearing-in at the Old Senate Chamber in the Capitol in Washington.

Analysis: Campaigning like incumbent risky for Hyde-Smith

EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS

Mississippi voters sent Republican Thad Cochran to the U.S. House in 1972 and the U.S. Senate in 1978, and he served on Capitol Hill until frail health prompted him to retire in April of this year.

For most of his 40-year political career, Cochran didn’t have to exert himself in campaigns. He faced a tough race in 1984, with a challenge from Democratic former Gov. William Winter. After that, Cochran cruised back into office on feel-good TV ads and a record of bringing federal money to Mississippi.

The don’t-break-a-sweat approach to campaigning nearly cost Cochran the seat in 2014 as he faced an aggressive competitor, tea party-backed state Sen. Chris McDaniel, in the Republican primary.

Fast forward to 2018.

With less than a month before a special election to fill the final two years of the six-year term that Cochran started, his temporary successor, Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, is holding carefully curated campaign events. That tactic usually worked for Cochran, but Hyde-Smith could be doing so at great risk to her own political career because she has never been elected to the Senate.

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith to temporarily succeed Cochran.

Although she won statewide office as agriculture commissioner 2011 and 2015, Hyde-Smith faces more pressure now in running for U.S. Senate. Two of her three challengers, McDaniel and Democratic former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, are raising money and campaigning around the state.

Hyde-Smith has declined invitations to debate, saying she doesn’t want the campaign to interfere if she needs to be in Washington for Senate business.

On Oct. 5, the day before Hyde-Smith voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, she did a teleconference town hall meeting from Washington. It was arranged by her campaign, and she took questions from people who gave first names only.

A woman named Lindsey (or Lindsay or some other variation) prefaced a question by saying, “Democrats have really ramped up their efforts to punish law-abiding gun owners.”

Hyde-Smith responded: “I am very committed to defending the Second Amendment.” The senator talked about her admiration for the NRA, said her family likes to hunt and said handguns are important for self-protection.

“I love my little snub-nosed .38,” Hyde-Smith said.

“It sounds like you are really going to work hard for us,” Lindsey replied.

The tele-town hall was a controlled environment where Hyde-Smith received easy questions, wasn’t contradicted by an opponent and didn’t face the possibility of adverse audience reaction.

The main plank of Hyde-Smith’s campaign platform is that she has a 100 percent voting record for President Donald Trump’s agenda. Her biggest campaign appearance happened Oct. 2 in north Mississippi’s heavily Republican DeSoto County, where Trump held his own campaign rally. He brought Hyde-Smith on stage for a few minutes and urged people to vote for her, after inaccurately telling the audience that he had appointed her to the Senate upon the governor’s recommendation.

“She’s always had my back,” Trump said. “She’s always had your back. And a vote for Cindy is a vote for me.”

Party labels won’t appear on the Nov. 6 ballot for the Senate special election. If nobody wins a majority Nov. 6, the top two advance to a Nov. 27 runoff.

Cochran defeated McDaniel in the 2014 Republican primary runoff, partly because he could draw on support earned through decades of constituent services. Hyde-Smith inherited some of Cochran’s Senate staff, but that doesn’t mean she automatically inherited his network of connections that could give her a similar boost. She holds the office but could be gambling if she campaigns like a comfortable incumbent.

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» Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter:

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