Rep. Jo Ann Emerson to resign, sets off GOP frenzy for her seat

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) will retire from the House in February of next year, cutting her tenure short to become president and CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and setting off a Republican frenzy for her seat.

Emerson will become CEO of the NRECA on March 1, according to a spokesman for the association, but she will join the staff and start transition activities on Feb. 11. The group is the trade organization for the nation's nearly 1,000 mostly rural electric cooperative utilities.

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Once Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has been notified of the vacancy, in February, the Missouri secretary of state's office will inform the 8th District Republican Committee, and the committee, which is made up of 80 members, will have to come together within two weeks to nominate a candidate to run in a special election.

The governor will set a date for the special election, and is required to give 10 weeks’ notice of that date.

Emerson, who was elected to a ninth term in November, has won most of her elections with a wide margin of support, and has outperformed GOP presidential candidates in previous years. The district is heavily Republican, and whoever is nominated by the district GOP committee will likely go on to take the seat.

Missouri GOP executive director Lloyd Smith, a former Emerson chief of staff, told The Hill he is considering a bid, and one Republican strategist in the state said Smith will have the nomination in the bag if he decided to run.

"If Lloyd Smith wants it, everybody else gets out of the way. If he doesn't, Peter Kinder gets it," the strategist said. The strategist added that the two would not likely run against each other for the position.

Kinder, the lieutenant governor, said in a statement that he is "certainly giving careful thought and consideration to this opportunity" and that he would be in touch with members of the 8th District GOP committee before he announced an official run.

"While it would be an honor to serve, this is a committee decision, and over the coming weeks I will be communicating directly to the members to gauge support for my potential candidacy. It is important to let the committee process take its course, and only after talking to committee members will I make a decision on whether to seek the nomination," he said.

Sarah Steelman, a former Missouri state treasurer and a primary opponent to Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) in his 2012 bid for Senate, will be running for the seat, according to her campaign treasurer, Jeff Layman. The GOP strategist said, however, that she's unlikely to win the nomination, unless multiple candidates throw their hats in the ring.

"She could split the vote and win the five-way, but I don't see that coming yet," the strategist said.

Other possible contenders include state Rep. Todd Richardson and state Sens. Jason Crowell and Kevin Engler.

Emerson, on a conference call with reporters on Monday, said she won't get involved in the special election, and wouldn't indicate whether she favored any one candidate.

"I will have no input whatsoever" in the nominating process, she said. "I think that it's my responsibility to allow the 8th district congressional committee to evaluate all interested candidates for the position ... and I need to stay out of it."

In an earlier statement, the lawmaker said she "did not go seeking" the opportunity with the trade group, but is excited to join the organization.

"I am not leaving Congress because I have lost my heart for service — to the contrary — I see a new way to serve. I did not go seeking this opportunity, but I am excited about the new challenge it offers to find ways to promote strong rural policy," she said.

She added in a conference call that she couldn't remember at what point the company contacted her for the position, but that "I think that the only serious discussions have been lately," post-election.

The NRECA executive board voted to approve her for the post on Monday, and Emerson announced her resignation shortly after. She said that her compensation in the new position is "more generous than I'm making now."

Emerson is known as one of the more centrist Republicans in the House, and throughout her 16-year tenure has broken with her party on issues ranging from stem cell research to setting a timeline to withdraw troops from Iraq.

Democrats decried her resignation as evidence of what they consider to be the GOP's increasingly rightward tilt.

“Congresswoman Emerson is the latest moderate Republican to ditch House Republicans, a sign that no moderates are welcome in the Tea Party House Republican Caucus," said Jesse Ferguson, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Incoming National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) lauded her service in a release, calling Emerson "a principled, determined voice for Missouri families and small-business owners."

Emerson said she had no plans to run for public office again in the future.

— This story was updated at 3:39 p.m.