The Republican candidate is attempting to link his Democratic opponent to President Barack Obama. The Democrat, meanwhile, is suggesting his Republican rival would dismantle Social Security.
Missouri voters have seen this campaign strategy before. The latest to employ it are Republican state Rep. Jason Smith and Democratic state Rep. Steve Hodges, who are competing Tuesday in a special election for southeast Missouri's 8th Congressional District.
The winner will succeed Republican Jo Ann Emerson, whose resignation ended a 32-year-run of Emerson family representation in Congress. Emerson stepped down in January, barely two months after winning re-election, to become president and CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
Because he is a Republican, Smith is the favorite in the sprawling rural district that Emerson carried last November with nearly three-quarters of the vote. He denounces federal spending and regulations, calls for the repeal of Obama's 2010 health care law and highlights his pro-gun, anti-abortion views.
Hodges said he holds many of the same conservative positions but defends certain aspects of the health care law and claims greater compassion for the poor and elderly.
The race also features Libertarian Bill Slantz and Constitution Party candidate Doug Enyart.
If the campaign theme seems familiar, that's partly a result of the political culture to which the candidates must appeal.
“Everyone knows this is probably a safe seat for Republicans, so everyone has to mold and shape themselves into something that looks like a Republican,” said Jeremy Walling, an associate political science professor at Southeast Missouri State University. He added: “I don't know anyone who seriously expects anything other than Jason Smith wins this election.”
Hodges at least publicly predicts otherwise, asserting: “I'm going to win.”
Missouri's 8th District encompasses more than one-quarter of the state with a boundary that stretches south from the outer suburbs of St. Louis to the agricultural-base of the Missouri Bootheel and west 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.
Smith said he has traveled multiple times to all 30 counties in the district during an aggressive campaign that caused him to miss about two-fifths of the work days at the state House of Representatives, where he is the No. 2 ranking official.
During those travels, Smith said he visited with numerous business people who “are scared to death over the implementation of Obamacare.” Although Smith declined to identify specific companies, he said some owners and managers confided that they would lay off employees or refuse to hire new workers in order to avoid payroll thresholds that would trigger additional requirements under the federal health care law.
Smith wants to repeal the health care law – something that remains a virtual political impossibility as long as Obama is president or Democrats control the Senate. He declined to take a position on some of the more publicly popular portions of the law, such as a provision allowing children to be covered by their parents' health insurance until age 26.
But Smith said: “The last thing we need is government dictating our health care, and the more mandates that they put on health care, the more it drives up the cost.”
Hodges said he supports the parental insurance option, as well as a requirement that insurers cover pre-existing health conditions. While expressing concern about the law's cost for businesses, Hodges said he backs a separate provision of Obama's health care law that would have allowed Missouri to tap into more than $900 million of federal funds to expand Medicaid coverage to lower-income adults. The Republican-led state Legislature defeated the Medicaid expansion.
As Smith has linked Hodges to Obama's health care policies, Hodges has raised fears that Smith would support Republican efforts to overhaul Social Security in ways that could jeopardize benefits. To ensure the long-term financing of Social Security, Hodges said he might support increasing the cap on the amount of income that is taxed, but he does not want to raise the retirement age.
Smith took no position on any potential changes to Social Security while nonetheless asserting that something must be done. Hodges claims Smith would go along with any Republican proposal.
“He's a career politician. I think he would go to Washington, D.C., and be a `yes' man,” Hodges said.
Smith, who turns 33 on June 16, has served in the state House for most of his post-college career, first winning a special election in 2005. He also owns a fourth-generation family farm with about 30 cattle near Salem and is an attorney and a partner in a real estate business.
Hodges, 64, of East Prairie, is a former supermarket owner and high school sports referee who spent a dozen years on a local school board and first won election to the Missouri House in 2006.
Through mid-May, Smith had raised twice as much money as Hodges – receiving more than $500,000 compared with a little over $225,000 for Hodges. Both candidates appear to view themselves as more than a congressional placeholder until the next general election, declining to limit the number of terms in office they would seek.