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Congressional candidates in 8th District ramp up get-out-the-vote efforts, attack ads

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 24, 2013: In a low-turnout election, anything can happen.

So the question of how many people will show up at the polls on June 4 is paramount, as the candidates for the vacant 8th District congressional seat zoom down the stretch.

“We’ve heard figures around 15 percent, or a little less,’’ said Democratic state Rep. Steve Hodges, a legislator from East Prairie, adding that even Republicans tell him, “‘Nobody knows this election is coming up.’ ”

The deadline for requesting an absentee ballot by mail is next Wednesday.  (Absentee ballots can be cast by person until June 3.)

In any case, with less than two weeks left to Election Day, Hodges and his five rivals are scrambling to make voters more aware.

Republican Jason Smith, a fellow state representative from Salem, Mo. – and the perceived frontrunner -- has been rolling out over the past week a parade of high-profile endorsements from fellow conservatives, including the National Rifle Association, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

Hodges, in turn, has been citing his membership in the NRA and his support from various education groups, including the Missouri NEA and the Missouri State Teachers Association.

Both men, or their allies, are running ads on TV and the web that attack each other.

The Constitution Party’s Doug Enyart says he’s been courting support from such groups as the “Sons of Liberty’’ and supporters of former GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul.

The other candidates for the seat are Libertarian Bill Slantz and two independent candidates whose names must be written on the ballot: Thomas W. Brown and Robert George.

Their last major forum was this week, before the Cape County Tea Party. (Click here to watch it.)

Winner will be first non-Emerson to hold seat since 1980

The contest will determine who will complete the remaining 18 months of the term of long-time Republican incumbent Jo Ann Emerson, who left last winter to take a financially lucrative job as head of the Washington-based Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

The district had been in GOP hands for 32 years, thanks to Emerson and her first husband, Bill Emerson, who died in 1996.

Smith and Hodges had each been selected by party insiders within the far-flung district last winter. The district stretches to the north as far as Jefferson County, and to the west almost to Springfield, Mo.

“It’s 30 counties, bigger than the country of Belgium,’’ said Smith communications director Justin Gibbs.

Republican state House leaders held a going-away ceremony of sorts last Friday for Smith on the House floor, with even Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, exuding confidence in his remarks that Smith, the current speaker pro tem,  would soon be headed to Washington. 

Hodges, 64, who was in the chamber that day, remains confident about his chances, citing his maturity and business background.  Even some Republican friends, say Hodges, “think I’m going to be the better fit for our district.”

Referring to Smith, Hodges said, “He’s half my age... Jason Smith is not Jo Ann Emerson."

Said Smith in a statement to the Beacon: “My team and I are honored by the outpouring of support we have received for our conservative message of less government and more Missouri common sense. Voters know this election is about our nation’s future. Voters do not want ObamaCare, they are tired of burdensome and costly regulations and they know our $16 trillion national debt is a ticking time bomb….”

'Right to Farm' ballot measure emerges as issue

Smith and Hodges have similar conservative voting records in the state House. Smith, however, has attracted attention lately because he is the chief sponsor of the so-called “Right to Farm’’ proposed constitutional amendment, which was approved by the General Assembly and now is headed for the 2014 ballot.  Hodges voted for the proposal.

Smith spokesman Gibbs notes that agriculture is the chief industry within the 8th District.

Smith and GOP leaders have said the amendment is aimed, in part, at curbing “radical, out-of-state animal rights groups” who helped win approval in 2010 of Proposition B, a measure to impose restrictions on rural dog breeders, including Smith’s family.

Enyart, the Constitution Party candidate and a forestry consultant, is putting a different spin on the “Right to Farm’’ proposal, contending that it’s really the “Monsanto Protection Act’’ to protect agricultural conglomerates at the expense of average farmers.

Enyart says he's been discussing the issue everywhere he speaks, and he contends it could have resonance among conservatives in the final days of the contest.

Smith spokesman Gibbs disagrees about the proposal’s intent, or impact.

“Right to Farm is all about making sure that farm families across Missouri …  are able to stay in business and the government is not going to regulate them out of business,” he said.

One point is not in dispute: As the majority-party candidates, Smith and Hodges are waging the highest-profile efforts,  with both running TV ads on stations in Cape Girardeau, Springfield and (at least in Hodges' case) cable channels in St. Louis.

Smith, though, has maintained a hefty financial edge. His latest report, filed Thursday night with the Federal Election Commission, showed Smith had raised $509,918, spent $212,212 and still had $228,146 in the bank as of May 15 for his final sprint.

Hodges’ latest report showed that he had raised $228,501, spent $82,065, and had $142,102 left as of May 15. 

Smith, Hodges enlist TV ads, phone banks

Their TV messages differ, but both are aimed at the same older rural voters who are most likely to turn out June 4.

Smith’s first ad highlights his blue-collar (and farming) background and says he espouses “common-sense Missouri values.”   He appears with his parents, and in hunting garb. (Click here to view it.)

(Update) On Friday, the Missouri Republican Party began circulating on  the web and social media a new ad that attacks Hodges by contending that he's too close to President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.  (End update)

Hodges’ ad, which recently began airing, attacks Smith as embracing a GOP agenda that advocates privatizing Social Security and cutting Medicaid. (Click here to view it.)

While Smith’s spot is promoting his ties to the district’s farming roots, Hodges’ ad reflects the district’s demographics: Hodges notes that almost half of the population of the district is over 50.

Hodges says that his point is that Smith has aligned with "the far right'' who want to scale back or eliminate programs that the elderly depend on.

But the ads aren’t the most important activity for either campaign heading into the final week.  Both campaigns acknowledge that their chief task now is  identifying like-minded voters and making sure they show up on June 4, or vote absentee ahead of time.

Smith spokesman Gibbs said the campaign is conducting “an aggressive get-out-the-vote effort.”  Hodges said his campaign is doing so as well.  Such activities include phone banks, where volunteers call would-be voters, line up their support – and then call back to make sure they appear at the polls.

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