- Associated Press - Monday, December 3, 2012

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Less than a month after cruising to a new term in Washington, Rep. Jo Ann Emerson announced Monday she is leaving her southeastern Missouri congressional district to become the leader of an organization for rural electric cooperatives.

Mrs. Emerson, a Republican, said she plans to step down from Congress in February just after her next term begins and will become the president and CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

“I am not leaving Congress because I have lost my heart for service. To the contrary, I see a new way to serve,” she said. “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.”

She said she will miss working with small-business owners, families, community leaders, students and military members.

Mrs. Emerson, 62, first won office in 1996, replacing her husband, longtime Republican Rep. Bill Emerson, after he died of lung cancer in June 1996. She ran simultaneous campaigns as a Republican in the special election to finish her husband’s term and as an independent in the general election for a new term. She has won re-election since then, and an Emerson has represented the district since 1981.

In the wake of Mrs. Emerson’s unexpected announcement to quit Congress, at least two Missouri Republicans expressed immediate interest in seeking to succeed her. A special election date will be set by the governor after Mrs. Emerson steps down, and congressional party committees then will select candidates for that contest.

Missouri Republican Party Executive Director Lloyd Smith and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman confirmed Monday that they are interested in Mrs. Emerson’s seat.

Mr. Smith, of Sikeston, worked for 28 years either for Jo Ann or Bill Emerson. Mrs. Steelman lost in competitive Republican primaries for the U.S. Senate this year and for governor in 2008.

“I look forward to listening and talking with the members of the congressional committee about their concerns for our country,” Mrs. Steelman said. “I know there are a lot of good people interested in running, and I hope we can all work together to select the right candidate.”

The 8th Congressional District is Republican-leaning and covers all of southeastern Missouri. The district stretches north to include part of Jefferson County, south of St. Louis, and reaches west to include Rolla and south-central Missouri’s Ozark County.

Mrs. 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, Mrs. Emerson held various jobs with industry lobbying groups, including the National Restaurant Association, and had worked in Republican politics.

She has not faced a competitive race since her first run for office and just last month claimed more than 70 percent of the vote. Mrs. Emerson also occasionally was mentioned as a candidate for statewide office but has demurred.

Although the U.S. House generally is considered more partisan than the Senate, Mrs. Emerson’s retirement is a blow to the chamber’s Republican moderates. House moderates increasingly have left Washington, either through retirement, losses to Democrats or losses in Republican primaries. Mrs. Emerson’s willingness to work with Democrats on a variety of issues, including nutrition programs and expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, has made her one of the House’s leading moderates.

Associated Press writers Henry C. Jackson in Washington and David. A. Lieb in Kansas City, Mo., contributed to this report.

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