Friday, July 16, 2010

Missouri 8 : For Sowers, Raising Money Is the Easy Part

By Stuart Rothenberg

Tommy Sowers, the Missouri Democrat who is challenging Republican Rep. Jo Ann Emerson in a conservative southeastern Missouri district, is getting plenty of attention.

An Iraq War veteran, Sowers got a big article in this newspaper almost a month ago (“Emerson’s Challenger Looks Better Than Most,” June 17), but he received ink earlier in the Daily Caller (March) and in Politico (April). He’s also drawn attention in the New Republic and AOL’s Politics Daily, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he receives more coverage.

Sowers’ bio and positioning — he’s running as an economic populist and a social conservative in the state’s poorest, most blue-collar, most rural district — is just the kind of story that reporters love.

He earned an undergraduate degree from Duke and a Master of Science in Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and he is a dissertation short of earning a doctorate in government from LSE.

The former Green Beret’s fundraising has been impressive given the district. He raised more than $680,000 through March 31 and just announced that he had raised more than $1 million through June 30. He had almost as much money on hand as Emerson did at the end of the first quarter.

The Roll Call article about Sowers mentioned a fundraiser in Washington, D.C., hosted by some big names, including former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, retired Gen. Wesley Clark and Democratic-strategist-turned-talking-head Paul Begala.

But Sowers’ March Federal Election Commission report also showed contributions from “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels, Manhattan philanthropist Donald Rubin (who spent $22 million on a Park Avenue penthouse five years ago), Credit Suisse executive Todd Sears, who has been active in gay rights groups, former New Line Cinema Chairman Robert Shaye, former Young & Rubicam CEO Ed Vick, Aspen writer and poet Bruce Berger, members of New York’s affluent Tisch family and dozens of lawyers, investment executives and Duke University alumni.

Remember, Sowers is running in southeastern Missouri where the largest communities are Cape Girardeau (about 37,000 residents), Rolla (about 18,000) and Poplar Bluff (17,000). According to 2000 Census figures, only 12 percent of district residents have a college degree, one of the lowest percentages in the nation.

While the liberal Missouri website Show Me Progress recently described Sowers as a “credible challenger” to Emerson, there is little suspense about the election’s outcome in November.

The Congresswoman, who first won the seat in 1996 following the death of her husband, Rep. Bill Emerson (R), is a prohibitive favorite. She is leading now by overwhelming margins in multiple polls, including an April American Viewpoint survey for the Republican that showed her leading 71 percent to 18 percent. Emerson has hired a strong consulting team and won’t be taken by surprise.

The Congressional district is very conservative and reliably Republican in federal contests. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) clobbered Barack Obama 62 percent to 36 percent there in 2008, a margin not much different from President George W. Bush’s over Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) four years earlier. The district’s Democratic performance index, as calculated by the National Committee for an Effective Congress, is 43.4, making it a difficult target for Democrats even in a favorable political climate.

And yet, there is no denying Sowers’ ability to raise money and to create a buzz. The only question is why. With so many Democratic seats in trouble, why would even a wealthy Manhattan or Beverly Hills liberal contribute to an obscure candidate in southeastern Missouri who has no chance of winning?

Observers note Sowers has a strong network of friends and an appealing personality. And they don’t fail to mention his good looks. “Do you think if he looked like [Rep.] Henry Waxman [D-Calif.] he’d get this response?” asked one Democrat rhetorically.

Sowers’ campaign manager, Jonathan Feifs, explains the fundraising success this way: “I think folks realize that it’s an uphill climb. But they realize that their support will allow him to communicate a message that will materially affect our chances of winning.”

Actually, I’ve seen this movie before, in both 2006 and 2008. At that time, it was named Scott Kleeb.

Kleeb was the handsome, denim-wearing Democrat, Yale Ph.D. in history who ran in Nebraska’s 3rd district in 2006 and for the Senate in 2008. He raised more than $1 million for his first run and more than $1.8 million for his Senate bid.

Kleeb got plenty of national media attention and Democratic buzz — I was at the Aspen Ideas Festival a couple of years ago and heard people excitedly talking about Kleeb coming to Aspen for a fundraiser — but he lost by 10 points in 2006 and by 18 points in 2008 (slightly behind Obama’s statewide performance).

At least Kleeb was running in an open seat in 2006 (though one lost by Kerry by 51 points in 2004), with an unpopular sitting Republican president and in a great year for Democrats — probably the best year since Watergate.

This cycle, Sowers has a strong wind in his face and is running in a district that Obama lost by 26 points and where Democratic Congressional initiatives are not likely to be popular.

With so many Democratic candidates running in close contests, you’d think party contributors might try to be strategic about their giving. Instead, many have opened their wallets to a personally appealing candidate who, by every indication, has no chance of winning. It’s difficult to believe those dollars wouldn’t be of better use in other races.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on July 15, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.