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I don’t know whether Jo Ann Emerson should be worried about her challenger, Tommy Sowers (rhymes with “hours”).

It’s hard to judge since he’s the first credible challenger she’s faced. Everybody agrees, though, that without money, no challenger has a chance, and by that measure, Sowers is credible. In the first quarter of this year, he raised almost $300,000–$70,000 more than Emerson did. And all but about $600 of those contributions came from individuals.

But money is only one part of the story. The rest of the story tells you why the money has poured in from lots of small donors. Sowers is a poster boy. For what? Well, he’s a photogenic 34 year old, born and raised in Rolla, who went to Duke University on a ROTC scholarship and served on active duty for eleven years, rising to the rank of Major. He led a group of Combat Engineers for four years during the Balkan War, then took the Special Forces Qualifications Course, led his class, and commanded a group of 12 Green Berets during two tours in Iraq. He conducted counterinsurgency operations and was awarded two Bronze Stars. Oh, and, by the way, he taught for three years at West Point.

That kind of background will recommend him to constituents in a district that has more than 70,000 veterans. The voters who aren’t vets are probably related to someone who is. And in fact, Sowers pointed out that over Memorial Day weekend, Emerson took a swipe at his military credentials. That riled up veterans in his district so much that close to a thousand of them have signed a petition telling her what they think of her low blow. If she knew her district better, she’d have understood how touchy her constituents might be on that topic, but maybe she doesn’t get it. Or maybe she’s starting to feel some pressure from this upstart.

My advice to Emerson, if she feels the need to belittle Sowers, would be to head for safer ground and take pot shots at his academic record. Not that he’s vulnerable there, since he was one of the top three students when he graduated with a Masters in Public Policy from the London School of Economics. Currently, he is finishing his PhD in Government there. He wants to use that knowledge to bring jobs to the poorest district in the state and one of the ten poorest districts in the country. For example, he wants FDIC regulations for small banks reformed. Local banks did nothing to deep six this economy, but their FDIC insurance has gone up 20 times.

He wants to renegotiate “free trade” (as if!) agreements and bring cell phone and broadband technology to Southeast Missouri, because, without them, the jobs will never follow.

I interviewed Sowers after a fundraiser in St. Louis with Gen. Wesley Clark. When I asked what issues he cared about besides those associated with bringing jobs back to the Eighth, he veered right back to the jobs issue. He’s lasered in on that. That focus is one of the reasons that Clark is endorsing Sowers. Clark, who is from Arkansas, can remember driving through Poplar Bluff years back when that area was thriving. He says that same drive is sad now, that it’s hard to believe how much southern Missouri has suffered economically.  

Clark has known Sowers for several years. The general wanted to find time in his schedule to address one of Sowers’ classes at West Point. That never materialized, but when Sowers called last year to say he planned to run for Congress, he had Clark’s endorsement immediately. Since Clark was in St. Louis Tuesday for another event, an ethanol fuel workshop–he’s heavily into promoting alternative energy–this fundraiser was pulled together on just five or six days’ notice. But Clark promises he will get to the Eighth District to campaign for Sowers on Tommy’s home turf.

Both men agree on a philosophy of listening to others rather than dictating to them before you earn people’s trust. Clark said that that shared belief is one of the reasons he supports Sowers. Sowers recalled that when he took over a command, he was assuming control of a group of people who had a wealth of experience. The men in his detachment knew what had worked well and what hadn’t, and he made a habit of hearing what they had to say.

He’s done the same in this campaign with his “Boots on the Ground” tour of southeast Missouri last winter:

For 28 days, US House of Representatives candidate Tommy Sowers spent one day and one night living, working, and listening in each of the 28 counties of the 8th Congressional District.  Tommy, along with his dog Chuck, traveled over 3100 miles in his pickup truck, more than the distance from New York to Los Angeles. He returned home to Phelps County on Tuesday for the final day of his “Boots on the Ground” project.

In every county, Tommy spent the day discussing issues and learning peoples’ concerns in the coffee shops, courthouses, workplaces and homes of southeastern Missouri. Sowers also worked side-by-side with residents on many days of Boots on the Ground. His jobs varied from teaching high school in Perry County, to working on a road crew in Iron County, to milking cows in Texas County.

I said to start with that I don’t know whether Emerson ought to be worried, but the reasons to think she should be keep piling up. Sowers has been getting attention from Democrats nationally. Howard Dean talked about him on MSNBC, calling him a “knockout.” Also, Sowers has just been added to the “Red to Blue” list, the DCCC’s list of the most promising candidates challenging Republican incumbents. And as Sowers’ website points out: “This district tends to vote for the person before the party, with 57% Democratic officials at the county level and below.”

Still, Emerson is an incumbent. In Rush Limbaugh territory. But wouldn’t that make it all the sweeter if he can win?

Help make it happen.