WASHINGTON — Rep. JoAnn Emerson’s unexpected announcement Monday that she will retire from Congress has set off a highly choreographed dance amongst Republican contenders in the state vying to replace the moderate early next year.
Emerson, who announced she was bolting Capitol Hill for the well-heeled confines of K Street, was first elected to Congress in 1996 after her husband, Rep. Bill Emerson, died while in office.
Now, Lloyd Smith, the executive director of the Missouri Republican Party, and Missouri Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder have emerged as frontrunners to take her seat in a safely Republican district.
In this shuffle to replace a relatively moderate Republican congresswoman, Kinder’s potential candidacy is of particular intrigue.
For one, he would leave a vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office that would throw into flux one of only two statewide offices held by a Republican.
And Kinder himself is an infamous, divisive figure within the state party: He is as widely respected for his loyalty to conservative causes and the party line as he is dismissed for his magnetic attraction to bad press.
He drew headlines last year when he stayed at luxury hotels and charged the rooms, $52,000-worth, to the state. (Although not illegal, Kinder later offered to pay the money back in full, out-of-pocket.)
He raised eyebrows among conservative Republicans when photos surfaced of Kinder, who is not married, hanging out with a former Penthouse Pet.
And he might be the most accidentally renowned voice in Missouri’s political Twittersphere: After drawing bipartisan, slack-jawed criticism for tweeting about “lefty Jew hatred,” tramp stamps, and Hooters, his staff revoked his Twitter privileges.
Still, as a dependable voice within the conservative wing of his party — Rush Limbaugh has been Kinder’s friend since both were children growing up in southeast Missouri — he was considered a favorite to challenge Gov. Jay Nixon this year before Kinder opted instead to seek a third term as lieutenant governor.
But if Kinder has a slight edge to succeed Emerson, the slot’s heir is still not yet entirely apparent.
The decision will hinge on the wishes and whims of a Republican committee, the members of which will choose within the next few weeks whom to support for the party’s nomination. The special election will then be held later in 2013.
Also in the mix among Republicans: Sarah Steelman, who lost in the Republican Senate primary race to Todd Akin; and a handful of state lawmakers, including former state Sen. Jason Crowell and state Reps. Todd Richardson and Jason Smith.
But most political operatives speculate that Kinder and Lloyd Smith will have first right of refusal among Republicans for the plum congressional seat.
As one former state lawmaker put it in an email, “Smith and Kinder get in a room and decide, I think.”
“This is literally almost like two brothers having to choose who gets a congressional seat,” a Republican operative added.
Both men have close ties to Emerson and her family.
Kinder worked for Bill Emerson on Capitol Hill and ran his first two campaigns; Smith, for his part, worked as JoAnn Emerson’s chief of staff until 2009 and with Bill Emerson before that, accruing nearly three decades of service with the Emerson clan in general.
On Monday, Kinder released a brief statement to address whether he would run, and said he would give it “careful thought and consideration.”
“While it would be an honor to serve, this is a committee decision, and over the coming weeks I will be communicating directly to the members to gauge support for my potential candidacy,” Kinder said in a statement. “It is important to let the committee process take its course, and only after talking to committee members will I make a decision on whether to seek the nomination.”