Missouri 8th Congressional District

Missouri has no governor’s race in 2014, no U.S. Senate race, and just one statewide contest of any kind (for state auditor). Politically, it was supposed to be a quiet year here.

That was, until Peter Kinder shook things up, as he tends to do.

The state’s vocal, often controversial three-term Republican lieutenant governor announced this month he is considering launching a campaign for the state’s heavily Republican 8th Congressional District seat in southeastern Missouri.

The problem is, there’s already a Republican in that seat: Freshman U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem, a young up-and-comer tapped by party leaders this year to fill a vacancy. And he doesn’t sound like he’s going anywhere.

“I cannot imagine Peter Kinder challenging any sitting Republican,” a clearly stunned Smith said in written statement in response to Kinder’s Oct. 1 announcement. “Friends just don’t run against friends.”

Kinder, too, uses the word “friend” in talking about Smith. But he definitely sounds like someone who is running.

“People on my side of the political divide in America today believe that the hour is very late for the survival of our freedom,” Kinder said earlier this month. “We have to put our best team on the field.”

So much for the quiet year.

“I’m intrigued to see what kind of campaign this becomes,” said political scientist Rick Althaus of Southeast Missouri State University at Cape Girardeau, who once ran against Kinder in a legislative race as a Democrat.

In that contest, there were plenty of policy differences between the candidates; in this one, there will be few if any. That, Althaus predicts, means it could turn very personal very quickly.

“I can’t imagine how these two would really differ on the issues. So how do you differentiate yourself?” he said.

Kinder is setting up an exploratory committee, which will allow him to start raising money. He has said he will decide in a matter of weeks whether to actually challenge Smith in the Republican primary for the seat on Aug. 5, 2014.

If he does, it will be Round Two between he and Smith.

The 8th District, anchored by Cape Girardeau, has been an unshakably Republican region since the Reagan era. For most of that time, the seat was held by the Emerson family – first by U.S. Rep. Bill Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, who died in office in 1996 after eight terms, then by his wife, Jo Ann Emerson, also a Cape Girardeau Republican. She held the seat until early this year, when she resigned to become a lobbyist.

A special election was scheduled last June to fill the remainder of her term, with party leaders choosing the nominees. As the most prominent office-holder in the field, with a string of statewide campaigns under his belt, Kinder, 59, was viewed by many as the odds-on favorite for the Republican ballot spot.

But in a surprise at the February balloting in Van Buren, Smith, 33, then Missouri House speaker pro tem, got the party’s nod.

“We never saw this coming,” Smith said in an emotional speech at the time.

He later easily beat Democrat Steve Hodges in the June 4 special election.

Kinder came in second to Smith in the party leaders’ February balloting. He blamed it on the party’s need for him to hold onto the lieutenant governor’s seat, since a vacancy there would be filled by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.

“They wanted me to stay where I was,” Kinder said at the time. “That’s the verdict of this committee today and that’s what I’m going to do.”

If Kinder does run for Congress next year, that drawback — handing a statewide seat to the Democrats — will still be there, since both Kinder’s and Nixon’s current terms run through 2016.

“Peter knows if he left the lieutenant governor’s office, Gov. Nixon would appoint a Democrat to replace him,” Smith said in his recent statement. “Peter has been in politics for over 20 years, he knows better than to give up his office to a Democrat.”

GOP officials, citing the same concerns, are already sending smoke signals to Kinder that, if he does run, he will face structural resistance from the party.

To drive that point home, Eddy Justice, 8th District congressional Republican committee chairman, recently polled 72 district GOP committee members on whether they thought a contested primary would be “a positive step for the Republican Party.” Fifty-six members — about 78 percent — said “no.”

“The last thing I want to see would be a divisive and costly primary,” Justice said last week. “My personal opinion . . . is that the best thing for the unity of the Republican Party in the Eighth Congressional District is to unify behind the candidate who was selected in the special election.” Meaning Smith.

Nonetheless, in a recent interview with the Post-Dispatch, Kinder sounded very much like a candidate. He took jabs at President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party over the federal government shutdown. He recounted his quixotic personal lawsuit to attempt to stop Obamacare.

And he disputed the argument that Smith’s brand new incumbency is reason enough to back off. “I don’t think that four or five dozen party leaders in a room in Van Buren, Mo., should necessarily pick the congressman who could be there for 20 or 30 years,” Kinder said.

Politically, Kinder and Smith both are in lockstep with the cultural-conservative wing of the GOP: Strongly pro-life and pro-gun, fervently anti-Obamacare.

Both men are attorneys, which is common in congressional politics, and both are unmarried, a relative rarity. In terms of their personal stories, the similarities pretty much end there.

Kinder is a native of Cape Girardeau, long the political power center of southeastern Missouri as the base of the Emersons. Kinder’s political history is tied to theirs; he managed Bill Emerson’s first successful run at Congress in 1980. Kinder won his first state Senate race in 1992, later rising to lead the chamber. In 2004, he won the first of his three terms as lieutenant governor.

Kinder considered running for governor in 2008 but stepped aside in favor of former Congressman Kenny Hulshof, who lost the general election to Democrat Jay Nixon.

If Kinder runs for Congress, he can be expected to tout his lengthy political resume’, as well as his stature as one of the few bright spots for the GOP in Missouri statewide politics lately.

“I am 6-0 in election campaigns,” Kinder reminded GOP leaders during the February ballot fight. “I have never lost.”

But Kinder’s long history in the public eye could work against him, too. Althaus, the SEMO political scientist, noted that if the campaign does get personal, it could touch on “some of (Kinder’s) publicity challenges of a few years ago” — a reference to Kinder’s hotel expenses revealed by the Post-Dispatch in 2011, as well as a relationship with a stripper when he was a state senator in the 1990s. Both controversies helped derail his plans to run for governor in 2012.

Smith is a fourth-generation family farmer who grew up near Salem, a city of about 5,000. He began his political career in the Missouri House in 2005, at age 25, later becoming one of the youngest House speaker pro tems in Missouri history. In campaigns, Smith stresses his agricultural roots, including running a farm established by his great-grandfather.

Asked for further comment last week about Kinder’s potential challenge, Smith said in a statement: “The people of Southeast Missouri have given me a job to do and that’s my focus. There will be plenty of time for politics and when that time comes.”

ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

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