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Paul Begala

Paul Begala

Posted: November 10, 2009 10:36 PM

A Warrior on a Mission in Rush Limbaugh's Home District

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Democrats who may be worried about the 2010 congressional races have a long shot hero this Veterans' Day in a most unlikely place: Rush Limbaugh's home congressional district, the 8th District of Missouri.

The southeast corner of Missouri reared Rush, but it may be about to redeem itself. This reddest of districts has a realistic chance of turning blue, and the reason is former Green Beret Tommy Sowers.

Sowers, who recently left active duty in the Army, has a gold-plated pedigree. Major Sowers earned two Bronze Stars in two deployments in Iraq. Mr. Limbaugh, the churlish champion of the chickenhawks, avoided duty in Vietnam because, reportedly, he had a boil on his ass. Some boil. Some ass.

Sowers has deep roots in the area. He was born and raised in Rolla, the town that gave us the Carnahan family, the Kennedys of Missouri. Sowers' grandfather founded the town's local newspaper during World War Two. Sowers led the Army ROTC at Duke, earned a Master's at the London School of Economics and taught at West Point. I first met him there, and have followed him with interest since. Now that he's left the Army he's been recruited once more. This time to run for Congress.

I must say I tried to talk him out of it. The district, I said, is too Republican, and the election cycle too challenging. Tommy would have none of it. This is his home, he said, and this is his duty.

While the district is undeniably Republican-leaning, Sowers is at home there in a way the incumbent, Jo Ann Emerson, is perhaps not. Emerson's husband, Bill, represented the area until his death in 1996, and Jo Ann Emerson succeeded him. She has won by overwhelming margins ever since. But her background is more K Street than Cape Girardeau. A former Washington lobbyist, Emerson has over the years been a darling of Washington PACs. In fact, 56.9% of the money she has raised in her career has been from PACs. She risks being seen as of Washington special interests, by Washington special interests and for Washington special interests.

Sowers' mission will be to ride what could be an anti-incumbent wave all the way to Congress. And he won't do it on a wing and a prayer. Fueled by his fellow veterans, Sowers raised $204,000 in just the first three weeks of his campaign. That's more than Emerson's last five Democratic challengers combined. Emerson will not be able to coast to victory on the 25-to-1 fundraising advantage she has held in the past.

What gives the race national implications is the threat that Emerson may be Scozzafava'ed. Bob Parker, a farmer and Ron Paul-style right-winger, is challenging Emerson in the GOP primary. Would it be too much to ask Lardbutt Limbaugh to come home and campaign for Parker? Or how about Sarah Palin? She did so much to elect Democrat Bill Owens in an upstate New York district that hadn't sent a Democrat to Congress in 157 years. Maybe we can get her to stop in Rolla or Raymondville on her book tour.

Something is afoot in southeast Missouri. Democrat Jay Nixon carried the district by a 51 - 47 margin on his way to the governor's mansion, and people are tired of politics as usual. Emerson has had a long run, but what has it gotten her district? The 8th District of Missouri is 435th - dead last - in female median income. It's the tenth-poorest district in America, and 25 percent of its children live in poverty. That doesn't sound like a place eager to keep a Wall Street-K Street Republican in Congress.

It's hard for me to be unbiased about someone like Major Sowers. After 25 years in politics you might think I'd be cynical. No way. Sowers is everything you'd want in an up-and-coming young leader: brave and battle-tested, deeply rooted in his community and passionate about bringing change and progress to his long-neglected corner of Missouri. He awakens the idealist in me.

So this Veterans' Day, we're going to fly the flag, as we always do. Pray for family and friends serving in the military. Honor those who have worn the uniform. And send a couple of bucks to a young veteran who is showing the same courage in the political arena that he showed on the battlefield.