Advocates hope Cindy Hyde-Smith's historic Senate appointment spurs other women to run
By Deborah Barfield Berry, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — Cindy Hyde-Smith's appointment today as the first woman to represent Mississippi in the U.S. Senate is fueling hope among advocates that the historic moment encourages more women in the state to run for Congress.
“We’re thrilled," said Jenn Gregory, program director for the Stennis Center for Public Service in Starkville, Miss., which has been training women to run for elected offices. “Having a woman represent Mississippi is historic. We feel like it’s definitely time for a woman to represent Mississippi. The United States Senate is the perfect place.’’
Gov. Phil Bryant is appointing Hyde-Smith, the state's agriculture secretary, to fill the seat of Republican Sen. Thad Cochran. Cochran, who is in his seventh term, announced he will resign by next month.
The move comes as a record number of women are expected to run for Congress this year, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.
Currently, 22 women serve in the Senate.
Mississippi is one of two states never to elect a woman to Congress, which could change if Hyde-Smith were to win the special election in November for the Senate seat. The other is Vermont. But the smaller, more liberal-leaning state has elected a woman to serve as governor, and Mississippi has not.
“It’s still rather shocking that in 2018 the state has never up until now, has never sent a woman to represent it in Washington either in the House or the Senate,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics.
Walsh said Bryant’s decision to appoint a woman could help the Republican Party, which has been criticized for its under representation of women. Most of the women running for Congress this year are Democrats.
“The story has been so much about Democratic women, and this was an opportunity for the Republican Party to put forward a Republican woman for an extremely high-level appointment,” Walsh said.
Political experts say, if Hyde-Smith decides to run in the special election in November, she can expect a tough battle for the open seat. Several candidates have already announced plans to run, including Republican state Rep. Chris McDaniel and former Democratic Rep. Mike Espy, who is also a former U.S. agriculture secretary.
Hyde-Smith wouldn’t be the only woman in Mississippi running for Congress.
Three women are in the race for the 3rd Congressional District seat — Katherine Tate, Sally Doty and Morgan Dunn, all Republicans. Republican Rep. Gregg Harper announced he had decided not to run again.
Mississippi state Rep. Omeria Scott, a Democrat, is running in the race to unseat Republican Sen. Roger Wicker.
“This is a year of a lot of change in Congress for Mississippi seats," said Gregory. “It really is a historic time for Mississippi … Rarely do we have this many clearly open seats. It’s really a pivotal point for Mississippi’s leadership in Washington with the opportunity for so much change. We are thrilled to have so many women jump in.”
Hyde-Smith is one of two women in Mississippi’s eight statewide elected offices. Lynn Fitch is the state treasurer.
Walsh said Hyde-Smith is well positioned to run for the seat. She noted that Hyde-Smith has statewide name recognition, has already won a statewide race and serves as agriculture and commerce commissioner, a key post in the state.
“She’s a smart choice in that sense,’’ she said.
But advocates acknowledge it's still tough for women to run. Raising money is the often the biggest barrier.
Traditionally, states in the Deep South have trailed others in the number of women representing them in Congress and in state legislatures.
“We’re in the Deep South, and there are fewer women who run down here,” said Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “It’s not such a traditional thing to do, and we’re in a conservative, traditional part of the country, and you get fewer women who see themselves as activists in that regard. I think it’s changing, but we’re still not there.’’
Former Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu was the last woman to represent the Deep South in the Senate. She lost her re-election in 2016 to Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy.
So far, no woman in Louisiana has announced plans to run.
Landrieu called it a “missed opportunity.”
Mildred “Mimi” Methvin, a Democrat and former Louisiana state magistrate judge, plans to announce her bid for Congress next month.
Meanwhile, women's groups have ramped up efforts, particularly in the South, to get more women to run.
The Stennis Center hosted a “Ready to Run Mississippi” training conference for 205 women last August. Next month, the center is expecting more than 200 women from 14 states for its “Southern Women in Public Service” leadership conference in North Carolina. The center last hosted the conference in 2008.
“We decided now was the time to resurrect it,’’ said Gregory, noting the turnout for the state conference last August. “We saw just how eager women are to equip themselves to be better prepared to run and to win.’’