Running Against Limbaugh in His Hometown

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34-year-old Green Beret Tommy Sowers has been touted as a rare hope for Democrats to play offense this election cycle, even as many predict GOP takeover. Running against seven-term Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson, he's generated some modest attention outside the state.


He also hails from the district that includes Rush Limbaugh's hometown of Cape Girardeau--where, thanks to a bill sponsored by Emerson, the federal courthouse is named after Limbaugh's grandfather, Rush Hudson Limbaugh, Sr.--and the talk-show host has become something of a focus for Sowers's campaign this week.

It began with a spat between Limbaugh and former DNC Chairman Howard Dean and has spilled into the 8th district race.

Appearing on CNN's "State of the Union" this past Sunday, Dean mentioned Sowers when asked about Democrats' chances to retain control of the House. "There's a young guy named Tommy Sowers...who's gonna knock off Jo Ann Emerson in Southeast Missouri, Rush Limbaugh's home district, he's just running a tremendous campaign," Dean told host Candy Crowley.

Limbaugh, not a fan of Dean, responded this week on his radio show: "They're focused on a district in which I don't live," Limbaugh said. "It's not my district. I mean, I grew up there, my picture's on the flood-wall murals, and I own the town, but I don't live--it's not the Rush Limbaugh district."

On Dean's prediction of a Sowers victory, Limbaugh said: "We'll see." (Audio here: Limbaugh clip.m4a)

The Sowers campaign has seized on Rush's comments--in particular, his aside about "own[ing]" Cape Girardeau--sending out fundraising emails this week telling supporters that Limbaugh has gotten into the race and asking them for monetary help to fend him off.

One of them reads (bold in the original):

...my campaign welcomes Rush Limbaugh's criticism and claims of ownership to this district. He doesn't own this district - the people of the 8th do. What Rush owns is a legacy of draft dodging, hate mongering, racist, sexist, and xenophobic rhetoric that has polluted the political discourse for over three decades.

It's difficult to tell what kind of chance Sowers has to win. Polling on House races at this point is scarce, this district included. In mid-July, he trailed Emerson in fundraising with just under $493,000 in the bank, against her $802,000. 

He's the first credible threat Democrats have posed in the 8th district in some time: in each of  the past three elections, Emerson has won with over 70 percent of the vote. An Iraq veteran, former Army Ranger, and former West Point professor, Sowers has played up his military service and hit Emerson for supporting the TARP bailout. He also wields a rifle in a recent ad.

Sowers has a swirl of larger political currents working in his favor: anti-incumbency sentiment, low opinions of Wall Street, and the unpopularity of TARP among Republican voters.

In the shadow of a the giant Limbaugh, Sowers is working those angles hard.


UPDATE: A note on Sowers's viability: as a few commenters have pointed out below, Sowers is not a favorite to win this race. The Cook Political Report doesn't list Missouri's 8th district as a competitive race this cycle.

In some ways, Sowers's blueprint seems to mirror that of Secretary of State Robin Carnahan: run hard against incumbency (though Blunt has been in the House), Washington, and Wall Street. Carnahan has never served in Washington, either, so to the extent that her campaign message will resonate in Southeast Missouri, Sowers's will too. Sowers's cash disadvantage isn't drastic, and the macro currents that benefit Dems this cycle seem to be working in his favor, while the economy and the unpopularity of Obama work in Emerson's.
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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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