Emerson’s Challenger Looks Better Than Most

But Solid Fundraising and a Military Background May Not Be Enough to Beat an Entrenched Republican

Posted June 16, 2010 at 6:25pm

For a political outsider from a rural district in Missouri, Democratic candidate Tommy Sowers has amassed a star-studded Rolodex of national supporters and has raised a considerable amount of money.

A recent fundraiser for Sowers at a hip D.C. restaurant listed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, consultant Karen Finney, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), Democratic commentator Paul Begala and former Gen. Wesley Clark as hosts — an impressive list for the long-shot candidate who hopes to unseat Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R) this fall.

Sowers said in an interview on Tuesday that he met several of his celebrity supporters through a Mass Media and Politics class he taught as an assistant professor at West Point.

“I invited speakers from across the political spectrum [to] share their perspective,” Sowers said.

Then, he kept in touch with them.

“I am very passionate about relationships,” he said. The campaign “has supporters in all 50 states.”

A former Green Beret and Army Ranger, Sowers is confident his campaign can defy the national trends, which look bleak for Democrats.

Sowers said he hopes that with his campaign he can generate national interest in the primarily agriculture-focused district that has been “long forgotten” by the manufacturing industry — a fact he attributes, in part, to Emerson’s absence from the district.

“The people I talk to want new blood in D.C.,” he said.

In addition to fans in high places, Sowers also has something else Emerson’s previous opponents have not had: money.

As of March 31, Sowers had raised $680,236 — more than Emerson’s last four challengers combined. On Monday, he was added to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” program.

But even with the star power and the fundraising prowess, Sowers still faces an uphill battle.

Emerson has won the overwhelmingly Republican district with more than 70 percent of the vote in each of the past four cycles.

Josh Haynes, Emerson’s senior adviser, said she is on pace to do so again, pointing to a poll released by the campaign in April that showed her leading Sowers 71 percent to 18 percent.

Emerson has raised $910,000 since March 2010, but Haynes assured that the Missouri Republican is not taking anything for granted.

“Jo Ann takes every challenge seriously, and this one is no different,” Emerson Senior Advisor Josh Haynes said. “Early on, we saw the potential for an unsettled political cycle, so we reinforced our in-district political operation and got people involved in the campaign from the start.”

With both candidates ramping up their fundraising early, the race is on pace to be an expensive one. In recent weeks, it has also gotten increasingly personal.

During an interview with a local paper last month about her vote against repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” Emerson said Sowers’ support for the repeal might differ from the views of military commanders she consulted because he “has never commanded anybody.”

Sowers, an Iraq veteran, demanded an apology, then started a petition on his campaign website to pressure Emerson into taking back her remarks.

Then came an innuendo-laden letter to the editor from Josh Bill, a former staffer to the late Rep. Bill Emerson, Jo Ann’s husband, whom she succeeded in Congress following his death from cancer. In his letter, Bill questioned why a single man would hold a fundraiser in the U Street corridor, an area he called “famous for the homosexual community and notorious for everyone else.”

Emerson’s camp said Sowers has done his fair share of mudslinging as well.

“We were ready for a serious race, and we got one,” Haynes said. “Nothing could have prepared us, however, for an opponent as negative, aggressive and disingenuous as this one. His attacks are really turning off 8th district voters.”

Sowers, for his part, said he was unfazed by the personal attacks.

“I’ve been in far worse situations,” he said. “No one is shooting at me yet.”

Steven S. Smith, director of the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government and Public Policy at Washington University in St. Louis, said Sowers’ ability to fundraise will give Emerson a race and will cause Republicans to spend money in a district that was normally safe. But he said a Sowers victory is unlikely.

“I think it’s a long-shot situation for Democrats,” Smith said. “He has been initially successful raising money himself; it’s worth putting Emerson on the defensive.”

Smith said Sowers’ military background gives him “a special edge” in a district with a high population of veterans and members of the military.

“Emerson wouldn’t be a natural target in a district that is pretty Republican,” Smith said. “[Republicans] have an incumbent who has been largely invisible,” and as a result a little more vulnerable.

He said the likelihood Sowers will unseat Emerson is low since she remains popular in the district, but he predicted the young candidate will have a bright future in politics.

“It seems like this could be a trial run for someone who could run statewide eventually,” Smith said.