Emerson’s resignation sets off free-for-all in Missouri House race

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) resigned from Congress on Tuesday, setting off a free-for-all among Republicans hopefuls seeking to take over a safe GOP seat in solidly conservative territory.

Thirteen candidates have expressed interest in Missouri’s 8th district seat, and sources in the state say there are currently at least four front-runners. They include Missouri GOP executive director Lloyd Smith, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder and state Reps. Jason Smith and Todd Richardson.

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“The people that are aggressively seeking the seat have been getting out there and meeting with people,” said Christy Roberts, a member of the 8th District Republican Committee.

Emerson first announced in December — less than a month after her reelection — that she would be leaving Congress to take a job as CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Gov. Jay Nixon (D) has set the special election for June 4, later than the April 4 date sought by Emerson and the Republican Party.

The political spotlight now shifts to members of the 8th District Republican Committee, who have already spent more than a month vetting candidates to replace Emerson.

The race is considered wide open, largely because the Emerson family has dominated GOP politics in the 8th district for more than three decades.

Former Rep. Bill Emerson (R) served the district, which includes Missouri’s Bootheel, from 1981 until his death in 1996. Jo Ann Emerson was elected in 1996 and served eight terms in the House after her husband’s death.

The family’s hold over the district — built in significant part on personal popularity — has made it difficult to gauge whether any particular wing of the GOP is stronger than another.

Though there has been a rise in Tea Party support in the area in recent years, Emerson was known for her centrist positions on issues like the Iraq war. She was a member of a number of centrist Republican groups, making it unlikely that any candidate to replace her would cut hard to her right.

“You've had an influx of Tea Party and Ron Paul supporters in the district, but there’s still quite a few members of what might be considered the old-guard establishment who have really gotten to know and like the Emersons,” said one source active in Missouri Republican politics.

The 8th District Republican Committee, comprising 86 members, must meet within two weeks to nominate a candidate to run in a special election.

All four front-runners — Kinder, the Smiths and Richardson — have met with members of the committee.

Eddy Justice, chairman of the 8th District Republican Committee, said the group is tentatively planning the nominating meeting for Feb. 9.

“Whenever this nomination is made, it’s my hope that every committee member leaves knowing this was not a preordained outcome, that the decision was made by this committee and not in a smoke-filled back room,” Justice said.

He said that he had been contacted via email or letter by nearly every candidate, and had met at least seven personally.

The Missouri GOP source said about a third of the 8th district committee members could be considered Tea Party members. While they might have been unhappy with Emerson’s centrist positions, the Emerson name might do more good than harm for a candidate.

Both Kinder and Lloyd Smith have ties to the Emerson family that could help them make their case: Kinder worked on Bill Emerson’s congressional staff, and Smith was Jo Ann Emerson’s chief of staff.

However, Jason Smith remains powerful in the area and in local politics, and is well-known as Speaker pro tem in the Missouri State Legislature.

And Richardson has, according to sources in the state, been doing the necessary behind-the-scenes work to establish support among the committee members.   

The 8th district is reliably Republican, so whomever the 8th District Republican Committee selects to run in the special election is likely to win.

Mitt Romney won the district over President Obama in November with 66 percent of the vote.