Top aides to President Donald Trump told Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant in a phone call this week that the president would be sitting out the state’s special election, an administration official told CNN Wednesday.
The official initially said the conversation was between Trump and Bryant, but later clarified that it was actually top Trump aides who conveyed the message to the Mississippi Republican.
That means Trump does not plan to endorse or campaign for either Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith or Chris McDaniel in what is shaping up to be a hotly contested race. The official said that could change and that the White House would continue to monitor the contest.
Bryant on Wednesday tapped Hyde-Smith, the Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce, to replace Sen. Thad Cochran, who is retiring. McDaniel is a Mississippi State senator and conservative activist who is challenging Hyde-Smith for the reliably Republican seat.
There won’t be a party primary for the special election in Mississippi, and the election will be non-partisan, with no party identification for the candidates on the ballot. If no candidate gets 50 percent, a runoff will be held.
The White House message to Bryant was that the president was not prepared to endorse anyone in the primary at this time, but noted that the decision was subject to change.
Aides spoke to Trump about the Mississippi race on Tuesday, the official said, and the president “expressed his desire to not weigh into the race at this time.”
The official added that Trump doesn’t have an issue with Hyde-Smith, but aides told the governor that the president didn’t want to get involved in what will likely be a race between the two Republicans.
Trump’s decision to wade into the special election in Alabama last year looms over this decision. Trump endorsed Luther Strange in 2017, only to have the establishment-backed lawmaker lose in the primary to Republican Roy Moore. Then Trump endorsed Moore, who eventually lost to Democrat Doug Jones after women came forward to allege that Moore sexually abused them as teenagers.
Republicans, including Trump, urged Bryant to appoint himself to the seat vacated by Cochran’s retirement, but the governor said no and opted to nominated Hyde-Smith, who was a Democrat as recently as 2010 when she served in the state Senate.
McDaniel, signaling how he will attack Hyde-Smith in the primary, went after her history as a Democrat on Wednesday.
“Before Commissioner Hyde-Smith was elected to lead the Department of Agriculture, her only legislative experience was that of a Democrat. She ran as a Democrat. She served as a Democrat. She voted like a Democrat,” McDaniel said. “Although her reputation in Jackson was that of a moderate Democrat, the last thing the state of Mississippi needs in Washington is another moderate Democrat.”
Hyde-Smith, preparing for a fight against McDaniel, highlighted her conservatism on Wednesday.
“I’ve been conservative all of my life and that’s demonstrated by my conservative voting record as a three-term state senator and my conservative accomplishments as Agriculture Commissioner,” she said.
Her campaign later sent out a list of two dozen endorsements Hyde-Smith has received from an array of Republican lawmakers, including one from Bryant referring to her as a “rock-solid conservative.”
White House officials declined to officially comment about Trump’s view of the Mississippi race.
Update: This story has been updated to reflect that a source clarified to CNN that it was top aides to Trump who spoke to Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, not Trump himself, as the source originally indicated.