But a special election will be needed to determine who will be Southeast Missouri's first member of Congress without the name Emerson in more than 30 years.
Emerson announced Monday she will leave her congressional post in February, after 16 years, to head the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, a not-for-profit organization that represents the interests of rural electric cooperatives and public power districts.
Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, plans for her last day in Congress to be Feb. 8. She will begin her job as president and CEO of the association Feb. 11.
Emerson, 62, is the state's longest-serving member of Congress, re-elected in November for a 10th term to the U.S. House of Representatives in Missouri's Eighth District. She was first elected in 1996 after the death of her husband, Bill Emerson, who became Southeast Missouri's congressional representative after the 1980 election.
"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 in a news release. "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."
Emerson had a conference call from Washington, D.C., with reporters Monday during which she said the decision to leave Congress was one made quickly, and that she did not seek out the position. The electric cooperative association is among Emerson's campaign contributors. The website opensecrets.org, which compiles data on money in elections and the political process, lists the association as Emerson's all-time top campaign contributor, having given her $79,803.
Emerson said her pending departure wasn't a long-planned move.
"This has all been very short and very quick," she said. "You can't always have control over the timing."
Emerson said she has met with the board of the organization twice since the last election, and the board finalized a decision to hire her Monday morning.
Emerson comes from a family of Republicans involved in politics. Growing up in Bethesda, Md., her father once served as executive director the Republican National Committee. Before winning election to Congress, Emerson held various jobs with industry lobbying groups, including the National Restaurant Association and had worked in Republican politics.
On Monday she likened the NRECA and customers served by its members to her constituents.
"I just feel like its an extension of the job I am doing now," she said of her new position.
The area she represents has nine electric co-ops that are members of the association.
Past challengers and Republicans in offices small and large floated their names as replacements for Emerson on Monday. Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Cape Girardeau native, expressed interest, as did Lloyd Smith, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party, and former state treasurer Sarah Steelman, whose last bid for office was an attempt at a U.S. Senate seat earlier this year.
State representatives Jason Smith, of Salem, Mo., along with Todd Richardson of Poplar Bluff, Mo., and Kevin Engler of Farmington, Mo., also floated their names.
Cape Girardeau County Presiding Commissioner Clint Tracy was mentioned as a candidate. Cape Girardeau County Associate Circuit Judge Scott Lipke said he's going to consider putting his name up for nomination, but that he's not ready to make that decision yet. He'll need time to pray and consult with family, he said. Late Monday, current state Rep. Wayne Wallingford, who was elected in the August primary to succeed state Sen. Jason Crowell, said he is considering seeking the nomination.
Crowell is being talked about as a potential candidate, but he hasn't committed to an effort, citing the need to discuss the decision with his family.
"At this time I have no idea about my future plans, but I am humbled and honored by the confidence so many have shown me," Crowell said in a statement sent Monday after receiving numerous inquiries about his interest.
Crowell's term in the Missouri Senate ends in January.
A special election will be needed to select a replacement representative. The district covers 30 counties in southern and eastern Missouri. Political party committees in the 8th District will nominate candidates to run in the special election, the date of which will be set by Gov. Jay Nixon.
During the call, Emerson said she would not have any influence in the naming of a Republican candidate and encouraged the governor to act quickly to set a special election.
Eighth Congressional District Republican Committee chairman Eddy Justice is another a possible candidate, but on Monday he did not confirm an intention to seek the Republican nomination.
"We are way too early in the nomination process to address that at this time, I think," he said.
Emerson cruised to a large margin of victory in her last bid for re-election, taking more than 70 percent of the vote against Democrat Jack Rushin and Libertarian Rick Vandeven. In August, the congresswoman defeated Bob Parker in the Republican primary. She hasn't faced a tough election since her first in the heavily Republican district, making it a tall task for a Democrat hoping to win.
Parker, who also lost to Emerson in the 2010 primary, said Monday he would be "looking really hard" at whether he would seek the nomination.
"I've had several calls this morning from people wanting me to run again," he said. "I think we desperately need some conservative representation in Congress, and people that are fiscally responsible and want to follow the constitution."
Parker said he will announce a decision within the next few days. He called Emerson's decision to leave Congress "interesting."
"It does come as a big surprise to me that she would retire just at the beginning of her next term," he said.
Communication between potential candidates and Republican committee members was "nonstop" Monday, said Holly Lintner, 8th District Republican committee vice chair. Art Cole, chairman of the Democrats' congressional committee, was not reachable by phone Monday to answer questions about potential nominees from his party, but Rushin indicated he may not have given up hope for another attempt to represent the district.
"One of the things we feel is that we'd like to have a better chance to get our message out, because before we didn't have the funds to do that, but we thought our message was pretty solid. But we couldn't get it out to enough people," Rushin said.
Democrat Tommy Sowers had no problem getting funding to challenge Emerson in 2010, raising $1.4 million to Emerson's $1.8 million, but he fell well short in voting, only getting about 29 percent. Emerson raised $1.4 million in the last election cycle to Rushin's $21,000.
An early top pick for Republicans on the committee, at least for Lintner, would be Jason Smith, who was selected in November to serve as speaker pro tem during the next legislative session. The position ranks second-highest in the Missouri House of Representatives.
"He's a very personable guy, and he's worked his way up in the House," Lintner said.
That could help the representative connect well with voters. Emerson's ability to defeat her opponents in every election often came down to her reputation for receptiveness to constituents' concerns, her supporters have said, and to her personality.
"She has been known for A-plus constituent services," Lintner said, adding that Emerson's connection to the region's agricultural community is one reason she remained so popular.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.