Jason Smith and Steve Hodges are sprinting to the finish line of a relatively short campaign for Missouri’s Eighth Congressional District. A special election will be held on Tuesday. The winner will replace Jo Ann Emerson, the long-time Congresswoman who announced her resignation shortly after Election Day. Jo Ann Emerson and her late husband, Bill, represented the southern Missouri district for 30 years.
In the waning days of the race, Smith and Hodges are battling themselves, and they are battling voters like Meg Daniels.
Daniels was strolling through Cape Girardeau’s downtown district on a cloudy Sunday afternoon, and she knows about Tuesday’s special election for Congress. But at this point, she doesn’t think she’ll vote.
“It snuck up on me and I don’t really know the candidates nor do I know what they stand for, so I don’t feel comfortable being responsible voting for them,” Daniels said.
That sentiment is common, as voter turnout is expected to be as low as 15 percent.
On Thursday, Hodges campaigned in Jefferson County, and worked the room at the Courthouse Grill in Hillsboro, chatting it up and shaking hands with diners and staff.
Redistricting split Jefferson County, just south of St. Louis, between three Congressional districts. As Hodges introduced himself to potential voters, many didn’t know if they live in the Eighth District.
Hodges is a Democratic state representative with a folksy style and a never-ending supply of stories about his days as a grocery store owner in his hometown of East Prairie. At 64 years old, he’s twice the age of his Republican rival, fellow state rep Jason Smith from Salem. For Hodges, Democratic-leaning Jefferson County is crucial.
“A lot of people don’t know there’s an election going on. It’s the only thing on the ballot. I have different thoughts about that. Certainly I hope it’s a great turnout here in southeast Missouri because I think this is a stronghold for me,” Hodges said.
If voters don’t know much about these candidates, it’s partially because there’s not a lot of daylight between them. Hodges is a conservative Democrat is this large, rural and poverty-stricken district that covers southeastern Missouri and the central Missouri Ozarks. Like Smith, he’s pro-gun and anti-abortion and opposes same sex marriage. He tries to set himself apart by declaring his unwavering support for Social Security and Medicare, a crucial issue for southern Missouri’s large elderly population.
But Hodges is the underdog here in this heavily Republican district.
Back in Cape Girardeau, Jason Smith stops by his campaign’s phone bank to motivate a team of volunteers.
“We’re trying to push out our supporters,” Smith said. “This is a very conservative district. A lot of folks didn’t know that there was an election. We’ve been trying to educate them. We’ve been putting the ‘Vote June 4’ signs on all of our 4 by 8 signs just making sure people know there’s an election and get out to vote.”
Just like his opponent, Smith is on a mad dash to the finish line, crisscrossing the district in the final days of the race. While Hodges focuses on Social Security and Medicaid, Smith hones in on cutting regulations. He’s outraised Hodges two-to-one, and both campaigns think recent TV ads have raised some awareness.
“We just can’t take it for granted. A lot of folks think that one candidate may be fine or the other, and that’s whenever candidates lose. That’s why you’re making sure that your supporters are getting out to vote,” Smith said.
Voter turnout for special elections tend to be extraordinarily low, according to Southeast Missouri State University political scientist Jeremy Walling. He says there are a lot of variables working against high turnout, like the election’s timing, no incumbent and candidates who were selected by committee.
“But I don’t think any of those factors are going to be the deciding factor on who wins this election,” Walling said. “I think that what we know is the Eighth District is a Republican district. It’s a safe district for Republicans. Jason Smith wins regardless of any of the other things that happened that put him in that position.”
Libertarian Bill Slantz and the Constitution Party’s Doug Enyart will join Smith and Hodges on the ballot, but Walling believes they will have little influence on the race.