White House officials planned to meet Wednesday with Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith, who received a frosty reception in the West Wing when she was appointed to the Senate last week.
Hyde-Smith was slated to sit down with administration officials including White House political director Bill Stepien, according to three people familiar with the talks. But she was not expected to meet with President Donald Trump. The people describing the talks spoke on the condition of anonymity because they had not been announced publicly.
It was unclear whether the gathering would forge a thaw in the troubled relationship or move the president any closer to endorsing Hyde-Smith, as her supporters would like to see. The uncertain dynamic has complicated the outlook for Republicans in the midterm elections, as they seek to defend their 51-49 Senate majority.
Representatives for Hyde-Smith could not immediately be reached. A White House spokesperson did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Last week, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, tapped Hyde-Smith to succeed Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who is stepping down April 1 amid health issues. She will also run in a November special election to fill the remainder of Cochran’s term.
But White House officials told Bryant last week that Pres. Trump did not support the pick, at least not right away, according to people familiar with the talks, even as the governor pushed for a quick endorsement from the president.
Pres. Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had urged Bryant to appoint himself and run in the special election. Party leaders have worried about stopping state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a controversial hard-right Republican who is also running for the Cochran seat.
Now there are concerns in the party that Hyde-Smith, a former Democrat who has served as state Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner, will be able to defeat McDaniel, who is well known from his near-defeat of Cochran in a nasty 2014 primary.
In the wake of the Alabama special election, in which Democrat Doug Jones defeated embattled Republican Roy Moore, GOP leaders have been determined to avoid another crushing loss in a deep red state due to a flawed Republican candidate.
If no one receives a majority of the vote in the special election, the top two finishers will advance to a runoff, regardless of party affiliation. Party strategists worry about a runoff that could include McDaniel and a Democrat, giving them two undesirable choices.
Democrat Mike Espy, the state’s first black member of Congress since Reconstruction and a secretary of agriculture during Bill Clinton’s presidency, has declared a “strong intention” to run for Cochran’s seat.