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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

On the trail: Five things to look for in 8th District election

Speaker Pro Tem Jason Smith, R-Salem, speaks with fellow Republican legislators on the final day of the General Assembly's 2013 session. Smith - the GOP nominee in the 8th Congressional District - received a standing ovation then, including from Democrats
Tim Bommel | Missouri House Communications

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 3, 2013: In some respects, the preliminary jockeying to replace U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson may have been more exciting than the actual election.

Since House Speaker Pro Tem Jason Smith, R-Salem, and Rep. Steve Hodges, D-East Prairie, were picked as the nominees, the race for the southeast Missouri seat was often overshadowed locally by the twists and turns of the General Assembly's legislative session.

The race hasn’t captured as much attention as other recent special elections for congressional seats, in part because most national prognosticators say that the seat is "safe" for the GOP.

But that doesn’t mean that Tuesday’s results won’t yield some valuable insight into the political future of the 8th District, which stretches north to Jefferson County and west to the outskirts of Springfield.

Even if Smith prevails, which many expect, Missouri politicos will be watching closely to see how he performs in different parts of the district. And it may be too soon to count out Hodges, who has a history of electoral surprises.

Before voters head to the polls, here are five things to look for:

Can candidates connect beyond their home bases?

Both Smith and Hodges hail from small towns within the 8th District, a swath of 30 primarily rural counties. With a district the size of Belgium, as Smith’s campaign manager noted, each candidate has a lot of ground to cover in a short period of time.

Smith and Hodges have both run TV ads and and participated in debates publicized in the local media. And on the Monday, the Center for Public Integrity reported that a Super PAC spent $12,000 to help Smith. But it won't be clear until after Tuesday whether either candidate has expanded his name recognition beyond his home base.

While Smith will likely do well around Rolla and Hodges may get some votes in the Bootheel, both candidates will have to win support elsewhere – including population centers like Cape Girardeau, Farmington, West Plains and Poplar Bluff. Those areas have trended Republican in recent years, one reason Smith is considered the favorite.

As Jeremy Walling, a political science professor at Southeast Missouri State University, noted to the Beacon earlier this year, “any time we have a list of our county officeholders in Cape County, the Republicans run unopposed.”

Who will prevail in Jefferson County?

When Republicans were redrawing congressional districts in 2011, Jefferson County was a big source of contention. The GOP eventually succeeded in splitting the fast-growing county among three different districts. Most of the southern part of that county is now in the 8th congressional district.

Jefferson County is historically Democratic, but Republicans have made significant gains on a state and county level in recent years. The county is once again expected to be ground zero next year for competitive contests for the Missouri Senate and the Missouri House.

If Hodges does well in Jefferson County, it may indicate that Republicans have some work to do before next year’s campaigns. If Smith puts in a strong performance, it could provide momentum for GOP efforts to capture the 22nd District state Senate seat, retain the county executive's office and perhaps pick up a House seat or two.

How low will turnout go?

Hodges told the Beacon earlier this month that turnout might drop as low as 15 percent. That’s not an unreasonable expectation, especially since the contest is falling on a day with no other elections on the calendar.

There is precedent for low turnout elections producing surprising results. In 2005, then-Rep. Frank Barnitz, D-Lake Spring, managed to win a state Senate seat in a decidedly GOP district during a special election. Also that same year, Smith captured a House seat that had been in Democratic hands for years.

On the other hand, national party committees often play a key role in spending money and stoking organization in congressional races. And since the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee hasn’t offered much help to Hodges, that may make an electoral surprise less likely.

Watch for the turnout in Cape Girardeau, where Republicans have been known to cast their ballots for hometown candidates. It's possible that since neither Smith or Hodges are from there, the turnout could be lower than usual.

Can Hodges overcome disadvantages?

The electoral history of the 8th District suggests that any Democrat would have a tough time winning.

After all, Emerson won re-election last year with 71.9 percent of the vote. And she beat back a challenge from Rolla Democrat Tommy Sowers in 2010, winning 65.6 percent of the vote before redistricting.

Hodges hasn't come close to the amount that Sowers raised for his run against Emerson. And Smith is ahead of Hodges when it comes to fundraising.

Still, Hodges faced tough electoral odds in the past. He was outspent when he first ran for the Missouri House in 2006 against Republican Gary Branum – a race he narrowly won. In 2012, he defeated Republican Neal Boyd – a winner of "America’s Got Talent" – by a landslide.

And areas of the 8th District have supported Democrats in the past. Last year, Gov. Jay Nixon, Attorney General Chris Koster and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., prevailed in many of the counties that make up the 8th District.

If Hodges pulls off an upset, he’d instantly become one of – if not the most – vulnerable Democrats in the House of Representatives, with a long line of Republicans entering next year’s primary to try to defeat him.

Still, even though Tuesday’s contest features other candidates – including Constitutional Party nominee Doug Enyart and Libertarian nominee Bill Slantz – who may take votes away from Smith, it may not be enough to overcome the district's strong GOP bent.

If Smith wins, can he scare off 2014 GOP rivals?

If Smith wins, he will have to stand for re-election next year. His prospects then could depend on how he does on Tuesday.

If he puts in a weak showing, it could cause some Republicans who lost to Smith for this year’s nomination – such as Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, former state Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, or Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff – to consider a more conventional primary run for the seat. Kinder in particular – who bounced back last year from a tough 2011 to win re-election to his office by his largest margin ever – could be an especially tough challenger, especially given his name recognition throughout the district.

But a strong performance could put Smith on good footing for 2014, giving him the chance to make himself better known around the district as the incumbent – as opposed to a candidate. He could also use the time to build up a sturdy campaign war chest to scare off potential adversaries. 

One thing's for sure: For the first time in over 30 years, the 8th District won't be represented by somebody with last name of Emerson. And after Tuesday, it will be up to Smith or Hodges to create a new political legacy for the district.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

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