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Inside the race for Missouri’s 4th congressional district


Although the political party of its representatives has changed over the years, Missouri’s 4th congressional district is one that has long been focused on agriculture, faith, family, and the military. And with Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler jumping into the U.S. Senate race, the seat is left open for what promises to be an exciting 2022 race. 

Thus far, only a handful of Republicans and one Democrat have declared their candidacy for the seat. However, there are a few potential candidates waiting in the wings who could really shake up the race. 

Here’s a look at who is running, who could run, and what makes the 4th district unique. 

A look at the district

The 4th congressional district covers a large swatch of central-southwest Missouri in Congress, from the Columbia area sweeping west to just below Kansas City and down to Pittsburg and Lebanon, settling north of Springfield. The district includes 24 counties, including Pettis County which holds the annual Missouri State Fair. 

It includes both Whiteman Air Force Base in Johnson County and Fort Leonard Wood in Pulaski County. 

“It is an honor to represent the 4th congressional district which helps drive Missouri’s economy with our strong ties to agriculture which is showcased every summer by the State Fair. Beyond agriculture, we have an impact on world events with two of our nation’s military bases located within the district, and more veterans reside in CD 4 than any other district,” Hartzler said.

Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler has represented Missouri’s 4th congressional district since 2011. (PROVIDED)

“We are proud of the fact we have Missouri’s land grant and research university and are the home to so many other universities and colleges, each with a rich heritage. We are small towns and farms that help feed the world, and we love our communities, families, and especially our country. We hunt on the weekends, we go to church on Sunday, and we just want government to leave us alone.”

Hartzler is only the second Republican woman elected to Congress in Missouri. She defeated longtime incumbent Congressman Ike Skelton in 2011 to become the first Republican to hold the seat in more than 50 years. 

Despite the Democratic stronghold preceding Hartzler, the area has always had a certain set of core values: pro-military, pro-Second Amendment, pro-life, pro-family, pro-agriculture, said Pat Thomas, a venerable Republican grassroots activist. Although Skelton and other Democrats certainly embodied those values, constituents didn’t believe national Democrats like President Barack Obama or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did — making CD 4 Democrats particularly vulnerable. 

“Those issues haven’t changed. Those are going to be the same things all of the guys competing today are going to talk about,” Thomas said. 

Missouri congressional districts (SECRETARY OF STATE’S OFFICE)

However, the biggest question is: What will CD 4 look like once redistricting is completed? Missouri did not lose any congressional seats following the 2020 apportionment from the U.S. Census Bureau. (Missouri’s House and Senate redistricting commissions met for the first time on Aug. 10 — but only leadership positions and meeting dates were hammered out.)

Although he lost the overall election, then-President Donald Trump handily defeated former Vice President Joe Biden in the 4th congressional race with 66 percent of the vote to Biden’s 31.9 percent, according to data from the Cook Political Report. In 2016, Trump beat out former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with 65 percent to her 29 percent. 

Education, health care, and social assistance is one of the largest industries in CD 4 with retail trade, manufacturing, and construction not far behind, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. 

A look at the candidates 

Five Republican hopefuls jumped into the race almost immediately following the congresswoman’s announcement. Tragically, only four remain in the race as of this reporting. 

Former state Sen. Ed Emery, who was the first to jump into the race, collapsed at a campaign in early August and died on Aug. 6 at 71 years old. Emery was a Vernon County native whose longtime work as an engineer with Texaco made him a natural fit to lead utility issues in the General Assembly where he served in both chambers. He was fondly remembered by former colleagues on both sides of the aisle as a statesman and deeply religious. 

“We served together in both the House and Senate, and Ed leaves an enduring legacy in public service — he will be missed,” Gov. Mike Parson said. 

State Rep. Sarah Walsh announced her candidacy to succeed Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler in the U.S. House on June 7, promising to “defend the American dream.” (PROVIDED)

State Rep. Sara Walsh — who represents HD 50 covering parts of Boone, Cole, Cooper, and Moniteau counties — kicked off her candidacy in mid-July. Walsh is the chair of the Consent and House Procedure Committee as well as the Subcommittee on Appropriations – Public Safety, Corrections, Transportation and Revenue. Prior to her time in the General Assembly, Walsh served as a Member Services Coordinator for the Missouri Pharmacy Association, a staff auditor in the Auditor’s Office, and the Program Outreach Manager for the National Newspaper Association, among other things. 

Her husband, Steve Walsh, was the press secretary for Hartzler. He died on Aug. 19 after a battle with COVID-19. 

Kalena Bruce billed herself as a “conservative outsider” in her campaign announcement. (PROVIDED)

Kalena Bruce, a cattle farmer from Stockton, launched her candidacy on Aug. 18, billing herself as a “conservative outsider.” Aside from managing the family farm, Bruce is a CPA who owns and operates an accounting firm in Bolivar where she focuses on small businesses and federal tax law. She touted her agriculture expertise and ties to former President Donald Trump in her announcement with a promise to “clean up Congress.” 

Cass County associate commissioner Ryan Johnson and U.S. Navy Reserves lieutenant commander Taylor Burks are also GOP candidates for the seat. 

Burks is a former Boone County clerk — appointed by former Gov. Eric Greitens and the first Republican to serve in that position — and has led the Division of Labor Standards (under the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations) since 2018. He grew up in the Ozarks and was raised on his family’s farm before serving three combat deployments with the U.S. Navy. 

Johnson unseated an incumbent commissioner last year — in what was his first political campaign — in his bid for the Cass County seat. He is a lifelong Missourian who served in both the Army and Coast Guard, spending eight years in active duty. He’s worked for Congressman Sam Graves and led the Missouri Alliance for Freedom, a nonprofit conservative advocacy group. 

But all eyes are on the slate of candidates who might jump into the race. 

A look at who could run 

Majority Floor Leader Caleb Rowden has met with the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) in Washington, D.C., as he weighs a campaign. He has said he is “seriously considering” whether to jump into the race. 

Rowden served in the lower chamber before he was elected to the state Senate in 2016, representing Boone and Cooper Counties in SD 19. He owns a media and marketing company in Columbia and is a former Christian music artist. 

Rowden chairs the Rules, Joint Rules, Resolutions and Ethics Committee and is the vice chairman of the Administration and Gubernatorial Appointment committees. He’s also a member of the Select Committee on Redistricting. 

State Sen. Rick Brattin has said he is “definitely considering” jumping into the CD 4 race.  (PROVIDED)

And then there’s state Sen. Rick Brattin, a member of the Conservative Caucus in the legislature, who is very likely to jump into the race. A former state representative and Cass County auditor, Brattin just wrapped up his first term in the upper chamber where he represents SD 31 covering Barton, Bates, Cass, Henry, and Vernon counties — which makes up about a quarter of the entire primary electorate. 

“I am definitely considering it and looking into it. I haven’t put together anything formal yet, but I haven’t ruled it out,” Brattin said. 

Caleb Jones, who runs the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives, would enter the race as a frontrunner should he decide to jump on in. He is a former state representative who should have no trouble raising money. 

Then there’s state Sen. Denny Hoskins from SD 21 who said he is considering mounting a campaign. Also a Conservative Caucus member, Hoskins is not up for re-election in 2022 and chairs the Senate Economic Development Committee. He is a consulting manager with an accounting and consulting firm that specializes in real estate and construction. 

Although his Senate district includes eight counties, only two (Howard and Johnson) are included in the 4th congressional district. 

At the time of this reporting, JD Leathers, a business consultant and subsistence farmer from Cass County, was the lone Democrat who has filed to run in the district. 

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 16, 2021, edition of The Missouri Times newspaper