Past special elections show what to expect

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The last two times a special election has been called to replace a member of congress in Missouri offer insight into what the process of replacing Jo Ann Emerson in the 8th Congressional District will be like.

It isn't often a member of congress leaves office before their term expires. It happened most recently in 1996 when Bill Emerson, Jo Ann Emerson's husband, died of cancer, but also in 1976 in Missouri's 6th Congressional District when Rep. Jerry Litton, along with his wife and two children, died in a plane crash. Litton had just won the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate and was on his way to a victory party when the crash occurred.

It is up to the governor to call for an election to fill a congressional vacancy, but Scott Holste, spokesman for Gov. Jay Nixon, said he doesn't know when a special election will be called.

"As far as I know, Rep. Emerson has at least indicated that her last date in office would be in early February, but I don't know if there's a firm date there," he said.

Missouri law requires at least 10 weeks notice be given to local election officials, but does not give the governor a specific time frame in which to schedule a special election.

Once a date is set, the process of selecting candidates clearly is different from in a regular election, explained Rick Althaus, a political-science professor at Southeast Missouri State University. Althaus worked for Litton at the time of his death and remembers that special election process. After Litton's death in August, E. Thomas Coleman was elected in November and elected to a full-term beginning in January 1977.

"People should not be thinking that they will get a chance to vote in a primary. There will be no primary election," he said. "This time around, the party activists will be the people who are determining who the nominee[s] will be."

According to Missouri statute, the chair of the congressional district committee of each party must call a meeting for the purpose of selecting a candidate to fill the vacancy.

This process can result in a different kind of candidate than a primary produces, Althaus said.

"The political views of the party activists are usually more extreme than the average party voter," he said. "Among Republicans those slots are likely to be more conservative than average Republicans and likewise, among Democrats they are likely more liberal than the average."

Holly Lintner of Jackson, Republican 8th Congressional District Committee vice-chairwoman, said she doesn't have many details about how the party will go about choosing a nominee. The committee's chairman, Eddy Justice of Poplar Bluff, has been out of the country since Emerson announced her intent to resign, so Justice and Lintner have not yet talked through the process, she said.

"What I would like to see happen is resumes of everyone interested submitted in a packet form to all the committee members, so they have a chance to actually review that information," Lintner said.

Many candidates already have contacted committee members directly, she said.

"I really hope that all the people will take all the political B.S. and all the relationships out of it and actually focus on who is going to be the best candidate for the job," Lintner said.

Democratic 8th Congressional District Committee Chairman Art Cole could not be reached for comment about his party's nomination process.

Althaus believes both parties recognize they need to nominate someone who will not only win a special election, but who also can be re-elected to a full-term once the current term expires.

"A more moderate candidate may be more electable," Althaus said. "Independent voters may likely be turned off by a candidate they feel is too extreme."

When Bill Emerson died, Jo Ann Emerson ran as a Republican candidate in a special election to serve out the remainder of his term, but as an independent in the regular election, winning both elections in November after his death in June.

If independent candidates are interested in the upcoming special election, they will have to collect signatures from registered voters equal to two percent of the total votes cast in the November 2012 congressional race.


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