Conservative Republican Smith wins big in 8th District

Wednesday, June 5, 2013
Jason Smith speaks to his campaign workers Tuesday, June 4, 2013 in Cape Girardeau. (Fred Lynch)

A new chapter of Republican control in Missouri's 8th Congressional District began Tuesday when Salem, Mo., native Jason Smith easily defeated his Democratic opponent, Steve Hodges, in a stand-alone special election that named a replacement for former congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson.

Smith, 32, an attorney, livestock owner and most recent speaker pro tem of the Missouri House of Representatives, will head to Washington, D.C., as early as today to be sworn in. His win marks the first time in more than three decades that the 30-county district, which covers Southeast and a large portion of Southern Missouri, will be represented by someone outside the Emerson family -- Jo Ann Emerson was elected 10 times after the death of her husband Bill Emerson in 1996. Bill Emerson had represented the region since 1980.

Unofficial election results showed Smith beat Hodges 67 percent to 27 percent, or 42,145 votes to 17,203 for Hodges. Constitution Party candidate Doug Enyart gained 3.6 percent of the vote, and Libertarian Bill Slantz received 1.5 percent.

Smith celebrated Tuesday night with a victory party at Salem's city hall, the site of a January forum for Republicans seeking their party's nomination to run for the open congressional seat.

Emerson, who resigned in January to lead the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, attributed Smith's win Tuesday to "hard work."

It was she who encouraged Smith to run for state representative in a special election in 2005 after she said she saw how well he performed as a coordinator for her congressional campaign in Dent County the year before.

"I really feel like the 8th District is in good hands," Emerson said Tuesday night. "I think he is going to make a difference. I've never seen anybody who works so hard."

Smith received his party's nomination through a congressional committee's vote in early February, besting a state officeholder, current and former members of the state Legislature and former Missouri Republican Party executive director Lloyd Smith, a longtime chief of staff for the Emersons. Jason Smith connected with committee members who chose him through multiple face-to-face meetings. He put more than 10,000 miles on his car traveling the district before his nomination.

Smith told campaign volunteers Tuesday in Cape Girardeau that he expects a "sharp turn" in the political philosophy to represent the district should he be elected to succeed Emerson, who was often labeled a moderate Republican.

"I am more conservative than Jo Ann," he added. "With that said, I respect her immensely."

He added, "what people have to understand is you're never going to find a candidate you agree 100 percent with, but you need to have a candidate and a representative that's going to listen to you and try to find out where your common similarities are that will help govern and make our area a better place. That's what my focus is."

Eddy Justice, who chaired the committee that picked Smith to run, called the win on Tuesday "a resounding victory for Southeast Missouri."

"One of the things it does is it debunks one of the major theories that Jo Ann Emerson got elected because she depended on the Democrats to cross over," Justice said. "Jason got elected tonight with over 60 percent of the vote and he did not count on any of the Democrat votes. It goes to show that the transition between Bill Emerson and the red 8th Congressional is complete.

Both Hodges and Smith are ran on conservative platforms -- voicing support for Second Amendment rights, fiscal control and positioning themselves as pro-life and anti-big government. Hodges pointed to his record of voting often with Republicans as a state legislator, but voters didn't respond as Democrats had planned.

Hodges contacted Smith shortly after the election was called in Smith's favor by The Associated Press.

"When I talked to him, I said, please carry with you what you've learned through this campaign," Hodges said. "And I'll carry back to Jefferson City with me what I've learned."

Hodges said he hopes Smith will consider the people of the 8th District when it comes time to making decisions on issues like Medicare and Social Security -- during the campaign, Hodges pledged to support upholding both programs if elected.

Smith, with more than $500,000 raised since February, outdid Hodges in campaign funds nearly 2-to-1 and had numerous endorsements from state groups, well-known Republicans and national committees heading into Tuesday. Democratic statewide officeholders rallied quietly behind Hodges -- Gov. Jay Nixon, Attorney General Chris Koster, Secretary of State Jason Kander and Treasurer Clint Zweifel all endorsed him several weeks before the election.

A lack of organization by Democrats also showed early on in the nomination process -- represented by a continually changing field of hopefuls for the party's nomination, Hodges stepping in at the last minute and a much smaller group of committee members when compared with the Republican committee.

Smith said Tuesday he is ready to get to work in Washington, D.C.

"This district has been without representation for long enough," he said.

Voter turnout on Tuesday was very low when compared to a general election day with a full ballot -- only 62,764 votes were cast, according to election returns posted on the secretary of state's website. A collection of voter turnout predictions from local election authorities released by the office Friday predicted an estimated 72,596 voters would participate Tuesday. Just more than 300,000 votes were cast in the November 2012 congressional race.

eragan@semissourian.com

388-3627

Pertinent address:

Salem, Mo.

East Prairie, Mo.

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