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8th District House race shows message trumps money, Emerson says
After nearly every one of U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson's seven re-election victories, her Democratic opponents have blamed their defeat on limited campaign war chests that couldn't keep up with what one former opponent called "the 8th District Emerson money machine."
Tommy Sowers can't blame his defeat on a lack of money.
The 34-year-old Democratic challenger from Rolla, who raised more than all of Emerson's previous challengers combined, ended up with more than $1.5 million in his bid to unseat Emerson, who raised more than $1.8 million.
Still, on Election Day, the result was the same: a Democrat making a call of concession, followed by an Emerson victory speech.
Final results show Emerson won 65 percent to Sowers' 28.8 percent, and Sowers even lost in Phelps County, where he is from. Emerson's vote total with all 28 counties reporting was 128,515 to Sowers' 56,362. In Cape Girardeau County, Emerson won with 65.9 percent to Sowers' 22.8 percent.
Those figures are still in line with Emerson's string of victories. And the money didn't change that.
In fact, in 2008, Democratic nominee Joe Allen got 72,790 votes, about 16,000 more than Sowers did Tuesday, and Allen spent only $63,000. Because more people voted in 2008, Sowers did get 2.5 percent more of the electorate on election night 2010 than Allen did in 2008.
But it cost Sowers plenty. For each point of improvement in his vote total, Sowers' campaign spent $616,000.
Sowers said Wednesday the money did allow him to get his message out.
"I don't want to say the money didn't have an impact," Sowers said. "What it allowed us to do, voters were able to go into their polling place for the first time with some familiarity with a candidate that didn't have the last name Emerson. What it didn't do was allow us to overcome 28 years of name identification."
Emerson, first elected in 1996, took over the seat after her husband died of cancer. Bill Emerson served in the U.S. House from 1981 to 1996.
Emerson, for her part, said Sowers did a great job of fundraising but that in the end it's always about the message.
"I don't think the message was correct," she said. "I don't think any solutions were offered. For Tommy, it was always attack, attack, attack all the things I've done wrong. That's fine, I guess, but you've got to offer solutions about how to fix it."
Spending a lot of money for television, radio and newspaper ads can be effective, Emerson said, but only if the solutions are the center of the advertising.
"I just think his message was wrong," she said.
Emerson's camp said that more than one-third of Sowers' fundraising was spent on a negative media campaign and that Sowers repeatedly dipped into liberal enclaves from New York and California for support. That, they said, sent the wrong message and didn't sit well with voters.
Only 30 percent of the money Sowers raised and spent came from Missouri.
"At the end of the day, the money doesn't matter," Emerson said. "It's where you stand on the issues and how you solve the problems that matter."
Sowers said his future is uncertain, but that it will involve public service. He plans to return to teaching and wouldn't rule out a political campaign in the future.
"The one thing that didn't change on Tuesday is that the problems are still there," Sowers said. "There are jobs being lost. Congress is spending money as if it's without end. I would have preferred to influence those issues on the floor of the House, and it would have been an honor to represent the people of my home."