By ERIN RAGAN
SEMO NEWS Service
CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. -- U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson announced today she will leave her congressional post in February to become president and CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, a not-for-profit organization that represents rural electric cooperatives and public power districts.
Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, was re-elected in November for a ninth term to the U.S. House of Representatives in Missouri's Eighth District.
"I am not leaving Congress because I have lost my heart for service -- to the contrary -- I see a new way to serve," Emerson said in a news release. "I did not go seeking this opportunity, but I am excited about the new challenge it offers to find ways to promote strong rural policy."
A special election will be needed to pick a replacement representative. The district covers 30 counties in southern and eastern Missouri. Political party committees in the Eighth District will nominate candidates to run in the special election, the date of which will be set by Gov. Jay Nixon. Several Republicans, including former state treasurer Sarah Steelman and Missouri Republican Party Executive Director Lloyd Smith, expressed interest in replacing Emerson on Monday. State representative Kevin Engler of Farmington also expressed interest, The Associated Press reported.
The AP reported Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder says he is giving the opportunity "careful thought and consideration" and will speak to nominating committee members before a decision.
Eighth Congressional Republican Committee chairman Eddie Justice is another a possible candidate, but on Monday did not confirm an intention to seek the Republican nomination.
"We are way too early in the nomination process to address that at this time, I think," he said.
Emerson cruised to a large margin of victory in her last bid for re-election, taking over 70 percent of the vote against Democrat Jack Rushin and Libertarian Rick Vandeven. In August, the congresswoman defeated Bob Parker in the Republican primary. She hasn't faced a tough election since her first.
Parker, who also lost to Emerson in the 2010 primary, said Monday he would be "looking really hard" at whether he would seek the nomination.
"I've had several calls this morning from people wanting me to run again," he said. "I think we desperately need some conservative representation in Congress, and people that are fiscally responsible and want to follow the constitution."
Parker said he will officially announce a decision within the next few days. He called Emerson's decision to leave Congress "interesting."
"It does come as a big surprise to me that she would retire just at the beginning of her next term," he said.
State Sen. Jason Crowell, whose term expires at the end of the year, is also being discussed among local Republicans as a possible candidate. He released a statement after being contacted by constituents and others.
"I have not had a chance to discuss this most recent of developments over with my wife and family," Crowell said. "At this time I have no idea about my future plans, but I am humbled and honored by the confidence so many have shown me."
Emerson held a conference call from Washington, D.C., with reporters Monday in which she said the decision to leave Congress for the new job with the NRECA was one that was made quickly, and that she did not seek out the position. The organization is among Emerson's campaign contributors.
"This has all been very short and very quick," she said. "You can't always have control over the timing."
Emerson said she has met with the board of the organization twice since the election and the board finalized a decision to hire her Monday morning.
"It hasn't been terribly long -- I think that the only serious discussions have been lately -- you know in Missouri folks have been joking with me for months," she said in response to a question about when the company approached her about the position.
During the call, Emerson said she would not have any influence in the naming of a Republican candidate and encouraged the governor to act quickly to set a special election. She also called likened the members of the organization and their customers to her
current constituents. Emerson comes from a family of Republicans involved in politics -- growing up in Bethesda, Md., her father once served as executive director the Republican National Committee. Before winning election to Congress, Emerson held various jobs with industry lobbying groups, including the National Restaurant Association and had worked in Republican politics.
"I just feel like its an extension of the job I am doing now," she said of her new position, which she will begin Feb. 11. Her last day in Congress will be Feb. 8.
The list of Republicans interested in a chance replace Emerson continued to grow Monday afternoon. Eighth Congressional Republican Committee members confirmed they received a call from Poplar Bluff state Rep. Todd Richardson. Cape Girardeau County Presiding Commissioner Clint Tracy also said he might be interested in the seat.