WASHINGTON — Missouri’s 9th Congressional District was in Democratic hands for 76 years until a dynamic Republican prosecutor named Kenny Hulshof won the seat in 1996.
If Hulshof resigns to take the helm at the University of Missouri, Democrats would suddenly have a chance to win back the region long known as “Little Dixie.”
But the district has become even more conservative since the mid-1990s as it has expanded south of Interstate 70 to include areas like Hermann and Washington — areas represented by Republicans in the state Legislature.
“I think it would be an uphill challenge for Democrats,” said David Webber, associate professor of political science at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “I think the fundamentals of the 9th District are more Republican now than in 1996.”
Hulshof, a rising Republican star in a safe seat, confirmed this week that he is a candidate to become president of the University of Missouri system.
“It is one of the very few jobs for which I would consider leaving Congress,” Hulshof said in a statement.
For now, party officials are being cautious in their public statements, not wanting to speculate too much about the possibility of an open congressional seat until the university or Hulshof makes a formal announcement.
But Democrats, who gained a key U.S. Senate seat in Missouri last year when Claire McCaskill defeated incumbent Republican Jim Talent, are intrigued by the idea of an unexpected seat suddenly in play.
“While we don’t know what Hulshof will decide, what we do know is that Missourians are hungry for change,” said Ryan Rudominer, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington. “Democrats have held this seat before and we certainly look forward to holding it again.”
There also is a question of how much money national Democrats would be willing to spend trying to win Hulshof’s seat. Democrats already are committing resources to unseating Republican Rep. Sam Graves in western Missouri and it is not clear if party leaders would pour funds into two state races.
GOP officials remain confident they can keep the seat in Republican hands. They point out that President Bush carried the district in 2004 with 59 percent of the vote, while Hulshof was re-elected last year with 61 percent of the vote.
“We are not going to speculate on hypotheticals, but at the end of the day we are confident the seat will remain in the Republican column,” said Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Should Hulshof resign his seat, Gov. Matt Blunt would call for a special election to fill the vacancy. There is no specified time limit for how soon an election must be held.
Once an election is called, district congressional committee members for each party meet to nominate a candidate, giving party leaders and local party activists a greater say in the process than in an ordinary primary.
Democrats have some reason for optimism after the party picked up a state House and Senate seat in Hulshof’s district in 2006.
“If the seat opens, Democrats fortunately have a very deep bench in that area,” said Missouri Democratic Party spokesman Jack Cardetti. “We’re fortunate enough to have a former governor and lieutenant governor who live in that district, two Democratic state senators and a handful of state representatives.”
That list includes state Sens. Wes Shoemyer, of Clarence, and Chuck Graham, of Columbia, both well-respected lawmakers who potentially could run for the seat.
Former Missouri Gov. Roger Wilson and former Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell, who also live in the district, have statewide name recognition. But Wilson just stepped down as chairman of the state Democratic Party and Maxwell has refrained from seeking office in recent years because of his wife’s health.
On the GOP side, Boone County Circuit Judge Kevin Crane, a former county prosecutor, is considered a possible candidate, though he told the Columbia Tribune last week he isn’t interested.
Another potential Republican contender is Greg Steinhoff, a prominent Columbia business leader who is director of the state Department of Economic Development.
GOP leaders, meanwhile, are playing down talk of an open seat for now.
“As far as the Missouri Republican Party is concerned, nothing has changed,” said Missouri Republican Party spokesman Paul Sloca. “Kenny Hulshof is still Missouri’s congressman from the 9th Congressional District and continues to serve his constituents in the outstanding manner he always has.”