As Election Day approaches in Missouri's Eighth Congressional District, the contest outwardly appears to be little different from each of the five times Jo Ann Emerson has been re-elected to the seat she first won in 1996.
Emerson, a Cape Girardeau Republican, has a big campaign treasury, a dedicated organization and a Democratic opponent with only a tiny fraction of her financial resources. In each of the past three elections, that combination has given the incumbent re-election with more than 70 percent of the vote.
Two of Missouri's nine congressional races are viewed nationally as places where Democrats could take seats from Republicans. The Eighth District does not make those lists. No published polls have been conducted to test whether this year will be typical.
Joe Allen, a 31-year-old lawyer from Forsyth, Mo., who is running on the Democratic ticket, thinks this year will not be typical. As the stock market falls and trillions of dollars evaporate from retirement plans, and as voters react to a Congress that approved a $700 billion financial market bailout, Allen said he feels Emerson, who voted in favor of the bailout, is losing her appeal.
"I don't know if that was a big enough mistake for her to swing this election, but I think that many people agree it is a big enough mistake that she is going to lose a big part of her fiscal conservative base," Allen said.
Emerson has said the vote to approve the bailout — she prefers to call the plan a "rescue" — was so important that it is worth losing an election. As she's traveled the district, Emerson said Friday, she has explained the vote and she thinks people understand why she supported the measure even if they don't like the bill.
"I have taken every opportunity known to me throughout our district to talk about our economy, to talk about the stabilization package, how we got here. and what the steps are to hopefully lay the groundwork for getting us out," Emerson said. "People have asked a lot of questions and I think once you sit down and talk to them about all the things that have gone on, people have thanked me for taking the time to explain it."
Another thing Allen said is different this year is the array of rural campaign offices and enthusiastic volunteers helping U.S. Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign. That organization hasn't been in place for Democrats in the past. The volunteers have registered thousands of new voters in the Eighth District and Allen said he expects to receive a boost as those new voters choose Democrats down the ticket.
"I have to assume a vote for Barack Obama is going to be a vote for me as well," he said.
The three C's
In her 12 years in Congress, Emerson has never been aligned with the far-right wing of the GOP. After winning the seat in 1996 following the death of her husband, Bill Emerson, she has charted a course that sometimes puts her at odds with the party leadership.
In April 2007, she voted "present" on an Iraq War funding bill that she declared at the time had become too politicized. The vote on the bill broke almost completely along party lines. Shortly after the vote, she was one of nine Congressional Republicans who went to the White House to insist that President George W. Bush change policies in the war.
In July 2007, she was one of 19 Republicans who voted in favor of the House version of a new Farm Bill and in September 2007 she was one of 77 Republicans who favored a bill cutting subsidies to banks that make student loans.
In an interview Friday, Emerson distanced herself from comments made by U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota, who suggested in a national television interview that some members of Congress are "anti-American." There are no anti-American members of Congress, Emerson said.
Pleasing other members of the GOP is third on her list of priorities when it comes to deciding how to vote, Emerson said. "I follow the three C's — my constituents, my conscience, my caucus, that is the way that I do things. Every caucus or both conferences have people on one extreme or the other."
Over the years, Emerson has become adept at bringing home earmarked money for projects in her district — the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge, the new Interstate 55 interchange and the new federal courthouse in Cape Girardeau are just some of the examples of spending Emerson has championed. While her party's presidential nominee, U.S. Sen. John McCain, has made earmarks an example of spending excess, Emerson said it's not that simple.
"I look at a Highway 60 or I look at the Emerson Bridge and I say, well, you know what, that is for the public good, that is the way earmarks should be, not airdropped in," she said.
Sometimes, she said, an earmark is the only way to make sure that a public need is addressed. "I personally think the bureaucrats in Washington don't necessarily know what is for the public good in Cape Girardeau, Mo., or Sikeston, Mo., or anywhere."
Federal spending does need to be dramatically reduced, Emerson said, but the real target should be overlapping responsibilities spread among several agencies, defense procurement practices and meaningful price negotiations over prescription drugs for Medicare patients.
"We could save $300 to $400 billion just in that kind of efficiencies," she said.
In each of the six elections when Emerson has been on the ballot, Democrats have nominated a candidate who made a poor showing and then a new face comes along two years later and the process is repeated. Regardless of the outcome in 2008, Allen said that process won't be repeated. Win or lose, he said he will be a candidate in 2010.
Allen presents himself as the kind of rural Democrat once popular in the Eighth District — conservative on social issues such as abortion, guns and gay marriage but more concerned with pocketbook issues than hot-button moral issues. The policies of Bush on the war and taxes have left the nation's fiscal house in tatters and Emerson has helped, Allen said.
"It all goes back to fiscal policy with me," he said. "She has voted for the war, voted for tax cuts for the oil companies, voted for Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. I don't think you can wage a war and borrow every single dime to fight the war and cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans."
Allen was raised by his mother, who was widowed when he was 6 months old. His mother operated restaurants in several small cities over the years. He is now a lawyer with the Merrell Law Firm in Forsyth, Mo.
"I was fortunate to have a mother that sacrificed everything for me," Allen said.
Like Emerson, Allen doesn't agree with other party members, such as U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, who denounce earmarks as wasteful. That kind of stand is a political posture, he said.
"I think every Congressman will fight to get money for their district and I will do the same," he said.
After getting spending under control, the top issues for Allen are the bailout, the war — the country needs a "legitimate plan for withdrawal" — and trade. Free trade deals have cost the district thousands of jobs and future treaties must present a better deal for U.S. workers, he said.
"Nearly 20 percent of our people live in poverty," he said. "It is time to give someone else a shot."
A native son
The bottom line, Allen said, is that he wants voters to see him as a native son who cares about the district. He doesn't have to win to be successful this year, he said. A strong showing on a shoestring budget — he's raised less than $50,000 — would set the stage for 2010, he said. "I am already getting invitations from different groups," Allen said. "I will start Nov. 5 for 2010."
Emerson said she hopes constituents remember that she has supported the farm programs important to the sparsely populated 28 counties she represents. Those efforts, she said, included opening Cuba to farm exports and supporting programs such as ethanol subsidies that add value to the district's farm production.
"I think I have done a pretty good job in my 12 years of representing the district," she said.
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