A young Missouri lawmaker who promised a "fresh approach" and denounced "reckless spending in Washington" won the Republican nomination Saturday to replace resigned U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson.
State Rep. Jason Smith prevailed after six rounds of voting by an 84-person committee of local Republican leaders and immediately became the favorite in a June 4 special election in the GOP-leaning 8th District.
"We're going to win this seat," Smith declared to the applause of fellow Republicans after accepting the nomination.
"The fiscal responsibility in Washington, D.C., is what's destroying our country, and we've got to take control of it and get it back," he added.
At age 32, Smith would be one of the younger members of Congress, but he already has plenty of experience as a lawmaker. Smith won a special election to the Missouri House of Representatives in November 2005 and, because of term limits, is now one of the most senior members of the chamber. After serving as majority party whip, his colleagues elected him in January as House speaker pro tem — the No. 2 ranking position.
On Saturday, he defeated nine other GOP candidates, including Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, former state Sen. Jason Crowell and former state party Chairman Lloyd Smith, who had been Emerson's chief of staff.
Missouri's 8th Congressional District is one of three vacant seats in the nation, but it's the only one where party leaders — not voters — are choosing the candidates. Democrats are to select their nominee next weekend.
Emerson, 62, resigned Jan. 22 to become president and CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, ending a 32-year run of family representation in Congress. Her late husband, Republican Rep. Bill Emerson, first won the seat in 1980 and served until he died of lung cancer in June 1996. Jo Ann Emerson then won an election to succeed her husband and rarely faced a formidable challenge thereafter.
Missouri's sprawling 8th District stretches south from the outer suburbs of St. Louis to the agricultural-base of the Missouri Bootheel and westward to the rolling Ozark hills. The district's residents are the poorest and least educated in Missouri, with a median household income of less than $36,000 and more than 85 percent lacking college bachelor's degrees.
A resident of rural Salem, Smith touted the fact that he drove 10,000 miles to all 30 counties in the district and visited with each committee member over the past two months. Smith is a man of many trades. He owns a fourth-generation family farm with about 30 cattle, is an attorney and also a partner in a real estate business.
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During a speech Saturday before committee members began voting, Smith pledged to "bring a fresh approach" to conservative policies without trying to "speak and yell the loudest." He lead after each round of voting, gradually pick up more support as other candidates were dropped from the ballot.
Smith described himself as more conservative than U.S. House Speaker John Boehner and said his goal is "to cooperate but not compromise on your core values." He asserted that President Barack Obama and "Washington, D.C., liberals" are twisting the words of the Declaration of Independence by trying to "guarantee happiness" instead of simply assuring people have the right to pursue happiness.
Federal spending, Obama's health care law and policies that "tax the rich to give to the poor" all are making the country "less American," Smith said. "It makes us less independent, less prosperous and less free."
Because there was no traditional primary, there was no mass media advertising and little need for candidates to fund raise. Consequently, the campaign was intensely personal. Many candidates met face-to-face with committee members in their homes, coffee shops or at public forums. On the eve of Saturday's meeting, for example, the eventual finalists all dined at the same restaurant in Van Buren — each seated at separate tables conversing with committee members. Their handshake campaigning continued up to the last minute before the meeting was gaveled into session Saturday.
Smith portrayed a less confrontational style than some of the other finalists.
Kinder, for example, had pledged to be Boehner's "worst headache" if he didn't get spending under control. Crowell had emphasized his record of shutting down debate in the state Senate to block spending with which he disagreed. Lloyd Smith had declared federal debt to be the "new red menace" that is destroying the nation's future.