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Red to Blue: Sowers Tries to Oust Republican in Rural Missouri District

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2010/10/Sowers_2.jpgTommy Sowers is vying for a seat in a conservative district in Missouri. (Tommy Sowers for Congress)

Born and raised in Missouri’s conservative, rural eighth district, Tommy Sowers served in the Army as a Ranger and a Green Beret, and then as a professor at West Point. Now the unorthodox Democrat — a critic of the bank bailouts and President Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan — is running for Congress against a Republican incumbent.

[Congress1] This year looks likely to be the worst year for the Democratic Party since 1994, at least. But Sowers remains undeterred. Since he started running, he has shaken enough hands and raised enough money to get noticed by the brass in Washington. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) named him to their exclusive “Red to Blue” program, making him just one of 29 upstarts the party figured might have a shot at turning a red district blue this year.

Besides conferring a degree of legitimacy, however, the program is mainly symbolic. With limited resources to spend and seemingly more and more Democratic seats once considered safe now becoming competitive, the DCCC has decided to mainly play defense, indicating it will spend nearly all its money to shore up embattled incumbents this cycle. But the consensus on that logic is far from clear: If you’re convinced Democrats are doomed, it makes sense to put your money on the natural advantages — name recognition, institutional support, sheer inertia — that incumbents enjoy. But if you believe that the anti-Washington pitch is so great that it’s incumbents, not Dems, who are truly in trouble, then backing credible challengers like Sowers might not be so bad a bet.

So far, however, Sowers is anything but a sure thing. A recent poll — taken by a GOP polling agency in early September – shows him trailing his opponent, Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) by more than thirty points. But it’s better than his numbers from April, in which he barely registered in voters’ consciousness, and it’s enough, apparently, to make Emerson sound a worried appeal last month for more cash, cautioning supporters in D.C., “I have seen candidates who celebrated in September and wept in November.”

So what’s a lonely Dem fighting an uphill battle in Missouri to do? Sowers spoke with TWI the other week when he swung though D.C., and the interview is lightly edited for clarity and length:

TWI: Democrats have been putting what limited resources they have into defending incumbents because that’s the conventional wisdom. How do you respond to that logic and what makes you think your campaign might be any different?

**Sowers: **Two millennia of warfare teaches you that you get your ass kicked on defense. You only win on offense. It’s a principle of war. And so I recognize and understand why incumbents get first crack on this but this is an anti-incumbent year, it truly is. Our plan all along was to win the race and do it on our own. I didn’t want to be one of those candidates, and I’ve met plenty, that say, “Oh, if only the state or national or some outside group had come in or gotten involved, we’d have won the race.” For us we’re focused entirely on the climate and the resources need to fight and win in the eighth district.

**TWI: **Running in a conservative state in a conservative district, you’ve taken some, well, conservative positions, most notably your opposition to [the Troubled Asset Relief Program]. Does it feel strange to be advocating a position that I more often hear coming from tea party candidates?

Sowers: I’m seeking to represent the eighth congressional district and they don’t see the fairness in a bailout where they don’t feel they had a cause in it, so it’s a position that both reflects the values of the district and also something that I believe.

**TWI: **So you personally believe the country would have been better off without TARP?

**Sowers: **Well, I think it’s much more than TARP. It’s the twelve pieces of legislation that led up to it. We’re talking about the repeal of Glass-Steagall and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, so basically that process of creating a system that leads to a bailout is one thing that I’m going to fix.

TWI: In attacking your competitor for supporting the bailout, your race mirrors the heated Senate battle in your state between Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D-Mo.) and Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). Is that a fair comparison?

Sowers: We’ve got a different race and a different opponent. What I’ve really seen out there is an anti-incumbent and really anti-establishment mood, and you don’t get more “D.C. establishment” than Jo Ann Emerson. She’s the daughter of the RNC chairman, she’s lived [in D.C.] almost her entire life, and she’s one of the five former lobbyists — there’s lots of future lobbyists in Congress — but she’s one of the five former ones. And what we see in this campaign is just the arrogance of establishment. She spent over $6,000 of her campaign election funds at Tiffany’s jewelry store over the last few years while purporting to represent the eighth-poorest district in America.

She’s also spent money at Neiman Marcus and W Hotels and Ritz Carltons and expensive tie shops in Italy. This was not a one-off event that she can blame on some staffer. What you can blame this on is the arrogance of being an established power, but this is a year where being as established power is more of a liability than an asset.

**TWI: **You also voted for Missouri’s Proposition C, which attempts to invalidate the personal mandate to purchase health insurance, a central component of Obama’s health insurance reform bill.

Sowers: I was one of the few rural Democrats out there to come out and support health insurance reform, but that doesn’t mean I’m for every provision of it. Proposition C was tightly constructed and it dealt with the individual mandate — and when you look out across the party, there’s a lot of folks out there that don’t believe in the mandate.

TWI: But it’s not as if you can take one piece out of health care reform and expect it to work as well. Without a mandate, you can’t reasonably demand that health insurance companies stop denying coverage for people with preexisting conditions. So how would you take this one piece out without letting the whole structure crumble?

Sowers**:** I don’t think [the personal mandate] should have been in there in the first place. You’re talking about the federal government mandating the purchase of a private product. The parts of health reform that I do like are the parts about creating competition. That’s one of the ways that you drive down costs, by setting up state-based exchanges. I think its one of your most effective ways to do that. And the credits to small businesses – I’m from a district with a lot of companies with less than fifty employees and there’s a lot of businesses that are going to benefit from those.

TWI: But is the Prop C measure even constitutional? Do you believe it can it nullify a portion of federal law?

**Sowers: **I’m not a legal scholar on this, but when it comes to the federal government mandating the purchase of a private product, this is something that doesn’t sit well in the eigth congressional district and lots of parts of America. So I think it’s going to be debated in the courts but ultimately it needs to be fixed in Congress.

**TWI: **The subject you tend to talk about most, however, is Afghanistan. It doesn’t seem to be the main issue that the electorate, at least nationally, is citing in the current cycle so I’m wondering why you’re bringing it up so much and what your position is.

**Sowers: **I’m not bringing up the issue. The people I’m seeking to represent are. I did 28 town halls over 28 straight days in July and I got asked about Afghanistan in every single town hall, and there’s a reason behind it. Even though you’re only talking about one percent of the population – or really less than that – that’s currently serving, it’s a much higher percentage in my district. There’s 70,000 veterans in my district and when I enter a room and I ask people how many of you are veterans or related to people who are serving, almost the entire room raises their hand. So this is an issue that has personal salience for the people in my home because it matters. It’s personal.

But more than that, it is tied to issues in 2010. Folks at home, they ask me all the time, “Why are we spending money overseas when we should be spending it here or we shouldn’t be adding more to the debt?” When we talk about where can we cut in terms of discretionary spending, right now we’re spending $400 a gallon – the taxpayer is – for every gallon of gas in Kabul, so it’s an area where there can actually be cost savings. And any soldier that is deployed – they’ve seen the waste, fraud, and abuse that occurs on military operations. So the stance on Afghanistan is very simply, we need to end fighting a conventional war because we’re fighting an unconventional conflict. […]

**TWI: **If Obama wanted to come and campaign for you in Missouri, what would be your reaction to that?

Sowers: There’s been no offer, and for me, we’re really running a campaign that’s focused on local issues. People in my district aren’t getting swept up in this whole national debate. They just want somebody that can come in and fix it. People say it’s a bad year, or potentially a bad year, for Democrats. Well it’s a bad year for a lot of people out there and it’s because of the economy. It’s because our jobs have been shipped overseas and it’s because we’ve bailed out places like Wall Street, and they understand that causal link. So they’re looking far more for a guy that’s actually from there, working his tail off in a campaign, who will work his tail off in Congress.

**TWI: **The only poll I’ve seen recently is something from Missouri State University that had you down 64 to 17 percent. Is that the latest?

**Sowers: **No we’ve got updated numbers and it’s looking good. We’re closing the gap – our name ID, which is what we’re tracking very closely, is much higher than we expected it to be. So this is a race that will ultimately break later, and we know that, but right now we’re reaping the benefits of, just frankly, working our tail off. We have a great field program in place, I’m out on the ground quite a bit, and now voters are meeting me for the second and third time, so I like where we’re at.

**TWI: **You did something where you ran through part or all of the district earlier this year?

Sowers: I marched 100 miles over Memorial Day weekend through 100 miles of yard sales, and when you walk up to a voter and say, “I just walked 80 miles to meet you,” which was a true statement, they’ve never seen anything like that before. I’m not trying to run this campaign, frankly, as an old guy. I’m running it as I am, which is as a 34-year-old, tobacco-using Green Beret straight out of the military who’s not the most finely polished stone out there, but who is sincere in his desire to fight for his home.

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