JEFFERSON CITY — Less than a month after cruising to a new term in Washington, Republican Jo Ann Emerson announced Monday she is leaving her southeastern Missouri congressional district to become the leader of an organization for rural electric cooperatives.
Emerson said she plans to step down from Congress in February just after her next term begins and will be the president and CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. She is expected to assume her new post March 1 at the organization, which represents more than 900 private, not-for-profit, consumer-owned electric cooperatives.
"I am not leaving Congress because I have lost my heart for service. To the contrary, I see a new way to serve," Emerson said. "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 will miss working with small-business owners, families, community leaders, students and military members.
Emerson, 62, first won office in 1996, replacing her husband, longtime Republican Congressman Bill Emerson, after he died of lung cancer in June 1996. She ran simultaneous campaigns as a Republican in the special election to finish her husband's term and as an independent in the general election for a new term. She has won re-election since then, and an Emerson has represented the district since 1981.
In the wake of Emerson's unexpected announcement to quit Congress, several Missouri Republicans expressed interest in possibly seeking to succeed her. A special election date will be set by the governor after Emerson steps down, and congressional party committees then will select candidates for that contest.
Missouri Republican Party Executive Director Lloyd Smith, former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman and state lawmaker Kevin Engler said Monday they have interest in the seat.
Smith, of Sikeston, worked 28 years either for Jo Ann or Bill Emerson. Steelman lost this summer in a competitive Republican primary for the U.S. Senate. Four years ago, she lost a GOP primary for governor.
"I look forward to listening and talking with the members of the congressional committee about their concerns for our country," Steelman said. "I know there are a lot of good people interested in running, and I hope we can all work together to select the right candidate."
Engler, of Farmington, served in the Missouri House and later was the majority leader in the state Senate. Last month, he won election to the state House. Engler said he has appealed to Republicans, Democrats and independents and could be the most electable. He said he enjoys public service and is interested in getting more information but that he will not crawl over people.
Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder said it would be an honor to represent his hometown of Cape Girardeau in Congress. He said he will speak to nominating committee members before making a decision. Kinder led two campaigns for Bill Emerson and worked on his staff in Washington.
"I am certainly giving careful thought and consideration to this opportunity to represent the 8th District in Congress," he said. Kinder added: "While I weigh this decision, I am mindful of the fact I was just re-elected lieutenant governor and must consider the people's trust in me to serve in that capacity for the state of Missouri."
Another southeastern Missouri Republican, Jason Crowell, said he was not aware of Emerson's plans until told by a reporter Monday. He said he would need to consider the situation with his wife and that he has "no idea about my future plans." Crowell has represented Cape Girardeau in the state Senate but was prohibited by term limits from seeking re-election this year.
The 8th Congressional District is Republican-leaning and covers all of southeastern Missouri. The district stretches north to include part of Jefferson County south of St. Louis and reaches west to include Rolla and south-central Missouri's Ozark County.
Missouri Republican Party Chairman David Cole called Emerson a "great leader and tireless public servant." He said the state party would work with the local Republican congressional district committee as it starts "the process of selecting a nominee to ensure that the district remains a Republican stronghold."
Emerson comes from a family of Republicans involved in politics — her father once served as executive director the Republican National Committee. She grew up in Bethesda, Md. Before winning election to Congress, Emerson held various jobs with industry lobbying groups, including the National Restaurant Association and had worked in Republican politics.
She has not faced a competitive race since her first run for office and just last month claimed more than 70 percent of the vote. Emerson also occasionally was mentioned as a candidate for statewide office but has demurred.
Although the U.S. House generally is considered more partisan than the Senate, Emerson's retirement is a blow to the chamber's Republican moderates. House moderates have increasingly left Washington, either through retirement, losses to Democrats or losses in Republican primaries. Emerson's willingness to work with Democrats on a variety of issues, including nutrition programs and expanding the State Children's Health Insurance Program, has made her one of the House's leading moderates.