Missouri congressional vacancy avoids partisan pitfalls

Sunday, December 9, 2012 | 5:36 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — There will be no Todd Akin scenario for Missouri Republican Party officials when they meet next year to select a replacement candidate for retiring U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson.

Akin, who was never the first choice of the party's top brass, emerged the victor in a contentious multiway primary last August and two weeks later essentially doomed his campaign when he remarked that women's bodies have ways of avoiding pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape." National Republican Party leaders winced, unsuccessfully pressured Akin to quit and then watched as he got trounced by Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.

This time, Republican Party leaders will get their man — or woman — of choice to succeed Emerson, who is leaving Feb. 8.

That's because there will be no primary election — no chance for rank-and-file Republicans, Democrats and independents to vote on who should represent the parties in a subsequent special election.

The Republican nominee will be selected by a committee of 82 GOP officials from southeastern Missouri. The Democratic nominee and any third-party candidates will be selected in a similar way under Missouri's rules for replacing federal lawmakers who quit before their terms are over.

"Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock (who unseated an incumbent GOP senator in an Indiana primary but then lost the general election after a remark about pregnancy and rape), they're all fresh in everyone's minds," said Jeremy Walling, an associate political science professor at Southeast Missouri State University.

In his course on political parties and elections, Walling said he cited the Akin and Mourdock races as examples of how primaries had weakened political parties. But the process for picking Emerson's replacement is like a return to the old system.

"This definitely triggers a mechanism to give the party more power over the decision," Walling said.

The internal party selection process will have several significant effects.

First, because there is no need to appeal to thousands of people, there is no need for candidates to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for a massive advertising campaign aimed at winning their parties' nomination.

Because the financial risk is low, far more people are likely to express an interest in the race. The day after Emerson announced her impending retirement, the Southeast Missourian newspaper published a photo profile of a dozen potential Republican candidates. The list included politicians with plenty of statewide name identification, such as Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, as well as a smattering of past and present state lawmakers, local officials and the man who unsuccessfully challenged Emerson in the 2010 and 2012 primaries.

Because the list of committee members has been made public by the Republican Party, campaigning will require a much more personal touch than is necessary when appealing to masses of anonymous voters. Connections to the committees will be important. And serious candidates for Emerson's vacancy are likely to try to talk in person or over the phone with as many committee members as possible before the meeting.

Eddy Justice, the chairman of the Republicans' 8th Congressional District Committee, said in a telephone interview Friday while on a vacation in Mexico that he already has received phone calls from five potential candidates for Emerson's seat. He also has gotten calls from various committee members.

The exact details of how the committee will vote remain to be determined. But Justice pledged that candidates would get a chance to make their case to committee members and that the media would be allowed to watch.

Justice, an insurance agent from Poplar Bluff, said he has "worked very, very hard" on the campaigns of state Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, who is among those mentioned as a potential successor to Emerson. But Justice stressed that he has not yet made a commitment to support any particular candidate in the GOP congressional contest.

"I want to stay on the plain that shows I'm going to be as fair as possible, and there is no behind-the-scenes work to dictate or assume a certain outcome," Justice said.

Emerson was part of a dwindling political middle in the U.S. House, a moderate between the polarized conservative and liberal members. Republican committee members may have a choice among candidates with varying degrees of conservative credentials.

"The question will be who do they elect? Will they elect someone driven by the right wing of the tea party, or someone like Rep. Emerson, who was generally a moderate?" said Dan Ponder, a political science professor at Drury University in Springfield.

Either way, the candidate picked by the committee of Republican Party insiders is likely to prevail in a special election against whichever Democrat is chosen, Ponder said. That puts 82 Republicans in a very powerful position.

"Probably the effects on the partisan composition won't change much" because of Emerson's retirement, Ponder said. "The 8th District is very conservative, so ultimately you'll just swap one Republican out for another."

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