(Fred Lynch) [Order this photo]
Over dinner with several Republican colleagues last week in Washington, D.C., Emerson directed her query at U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick of North Carolina, who had announced just six months before that she would not seek re-election. Myrick, a former mayor of Charlotte, had come to Congress in 1995, just two years before Emerson was sworn in for the first time. Both had the distinction of being the first Republican woman to represent their respective states in Congress.
Now, Myrick was calling it quits, prompting Emerson's question. Myrick's answer was this: She "just knew" that the time was right to walk away.
The response was one that Emerson said left her frustrated and seemingly without insight. But when Emerson -- the longest serving Republican to ever hold the 8th Congressional District seat and the third-longest ever -- was asked why she wants to seek another term, she used a variation on Myrick's theme in her response.
"Well, I don't just know," Emerson said. "I love my job, and there's a lot of work left to be done."
(Fred Lynch) [Order this photo]
In November, Emerson has every intention of facing political newcomer Jack Rushin, a chiropractor and Democrat from Poplar Bluff, as well as the returning Libertarian Rick Vandeven of Chaffee, who lost to Emerson in the 2010 general election.
But to get to them, she'll have to square off against another familiar challenger. Fellow Republican Bob Parker is also back in his second attempt to unseat Emerson. The rancher from Raymondville garnered about 34 percent of the vote in the Republican primary two years ago and insists he's built even more support that he believes will make him the Republican candidate when the votes are tallied Aug. 7.
Parker, 55, said he is basing that estimation on what he's been hearing from disgruntled conservatives as he racks up thousands of miles on his pickup in treks across the 30-county district, anchored in Cape Girardeau, that extends from the southeastern into the south-central part of the state.
"I don't think Jo Ann Emerson got the message that we in the 8th District want conservative actions in Congress," Parker said in written responses to questions.
Parker's message is similar to the one he spread in 2010. With a slogan of "Take America Back," Parker continues to attack Emerson's conservative credentials, hammering the Cape Girardeau Republican for her voting record over the years, such as supporting a $700 billion bank bailout, the Cash for Clunkers automobile sales incentive and embryonic stem-cell research.
For his part, Parker preaches fiscal restraint, the protection of property rights, support of the pro-life agenda and the loosening of government regulations. He also is not shy about talking about his Christian faith.
Parker knows it won't be easy. Emerson has handily won in her re-election attempts, most recently besting Democrat Tommy Sowers in 2010. The former Green Beret and Iraq War veteran was said to be her first credible threat. But despite that and more than $1 million in campaign funds, Sowers got just 29 percent of the vote.
Parker is also working again without much of a campaign treasury. He has raised $35,121 for this election, about $5,000 more than two years ago, according to reports on file with the Federal Election Commission. But Parker had spent most of that and had only $667 cash on hand through July 18, according to the filing. Emerson, meanwhile has receipts that topped $1 million, with $648,135 coming from political action committees and $427,640 coming from individual contributors. But she still has $230,241 on hand through the same period.
For his supporters, Parker said, this campaign is an investment in the future. His volunteers work tirelessly, he said, going door to door, paying for election letters in newspapers, walk in parades and place signs.
"We've put in a lot of sweat equity," Parker said. "You can't buy that commitment with lobbyist money or flashy advertising."
In an interview with the Southeast Missourian last week, Emerson refused to discuss Parker or his claims. But she and her campaign staff, at least internally, aren't acting as if Parker doesn't exist. The campaign has distributed anti-Parker fliers in attempt to call his positions on terrorism and drug laws into doubt.
Emerson's camp also has started running campaign ads on television station KSDK, the NBC affiliate in St. Louis. The station reaches into the district's new boundaries, expanded by redistricting after Missouri lost one of its nine congressional districts. While portions of Taney County were taken out, the district picked up all of Crawford and Ste. Genevieve counties and most of the southern and western parts of Jefferson County. According to voting patterns, the largely rural district will become slightly more Democratic but still be solidly Republican.
Parker says the fliers are an indicator that Emerson is all too aware that his grassroots efforts with tea party leanings is seeing a groundswell of support.
If Emerson herself is staying silent on the subject of her opponent, she is willing to talk about her record and what she sees as goals for the next two years. In the interview, Emerson spoke most about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Like many others, though, Emerson didn't call it that, instead opting for the informal name that even some Democrats are using -- Obamacare.
When the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly upheld the president's health care overhaul last month, Emerson said, she was surprised. She had been hopeful that it would be overturned. When it wasn't, Emerson herself presided over the U.S. House in its first vote to repeal it after the high court's ruling. In the months before that, Emerson and others in the House voted more than 30 times to strike it from the books.
As chairwoman of the financial services and general government subcommittee, Emerson said she is in a key position to block the implementation of the health care laws. Close to $2 billion has been cut from the budget of the Internal Revenue Service, the agency charged with enforcing it.
Fighting back against the health care laws, she said, will be significant, especially she sees it as a tax because the laws would create what is considered a penalty that people without health insurance would pay. Some estimates place the penalties at greater than $500 billion over the next 10 years. This November's election nationally will be equally crucial, Emerson said, and she's hoping the Senate picks up enough Republican seats to repeal each of the 21 "tax hikes" that the program is expected to create.
Emerson says there's much more that the next representative of the 8th District will have to deal with -- the growing bath salts problem, finalizing a farm bill, the possibility of U.S. Postal Service facility shutdowns and a highway bill.
But it's those challenges that keep her interested and engaged, she said, and the main reason she opted against a run at the U.S. Senate this year.
"Give me a challenge and I like trying to figure out how best to solve it," Emerson said. "I feel very strongly that I want to continue in this role. Sue told me that she just knew it was time for her. I don't know that it's just time for me. That's just how I know that it's not."
Emerson says there's a lot of work to be done. But it will be up to Republican voters next month to decide whether it's her -- or Bob Parker -- who will be their choice to do it.
Cape Girardeau, MO