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Missouri Congress members hold big cash advantage over challengers running low-budget efforts

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JEFFERSON CITY, Missouri — Together, Missouri's eight Congress members were sitting on nearly $5 million in campaign cash heading into the final few weeks before the Aug. 5 primary elections.

Their 38 challengers' campaigns had less than $100,000 combined.

The huge financial gap illustrates the long odds those challengers face.

Despite a few notable upsets elsewhere in the country, "the incumbency factor seems to be pretty much in full force" for Missouri's congressional races, said George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University.

Three of Missouri's U.S. House members face no intraparty opposition, giving them a free pass to the general election. The state's five other Congress members will appear on the primary ballot alongside opponents with little name recognition and without the resources to change that.

Missouri's incumbents also have another thing going for them. The Republicans generally are viewed as conservatives while the Democrats have reputations as liberals, making it tougher for primary challengers to outflank them on the right or left, Connor said.

Because of that, Connor said it's "very unlikely" that Missouri will see the sort of upset that occurred in Virginia, where economics professor Dave Brat defeated U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Republican primary in June. Cantor's campaign raised nearly $5 million while Brat's raised $200,000, but Brat tapped into Republican voters' unhappiness with the incumbent.

Most of Missouri's congressional challengers haven't even filed federal campaign finance reports, which are required when candidates raise or spend more than $5,000.

Those challengers who have raised money are running low-budget campaigns, paying for business cards, stickers and yard signs — not widespread TV ads — while driving around their districts for person-to-person events.

The most competitive primary, based on the number of participants, is for the 5th District seat held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, of Kansas City. He is being challenged by four Democrats, four Republicans and a Libertarian.

Kansas City resident Eric Holmes, who works for an Army contractor at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, is Cleaver's only Democratic challenger to report any campaign spending, and that has totaled barely $3,000. But he plans to distribute a newspaper flier shortly before the election and has been giving donors copies of books he compiled containing quotations about success and stories from the rebuilding of Iraq.

Like fellow low-budget Democratic challenger Bob Gough, Holmes has been campaigning against President Barack Obama's health care law, which Cleaver supported. Holmes describes himself as "longshot alternative."

But "then I look at it, and I see what happened to Eric Cantor, and I see the mood of the people — the opinion of Congress is at an all-time low — and my message may just go out there and resonate with people," he said.

The Republican primary includes Jacob Turk, who is making his fifth attempt to unseat Cleaver.

Turk's closest loss was in 2010, when he got 44 percent of the vote compared to Cleaver's 53 percent. But the district was re-shaped after the 2010 Census, resulting in a higher concentration of Democratic-leaning voters even though the boundaries extended into several rural counties.

Nonetheless, Turk thinks he can emerge again from a GOP primary and fare well against Cleaver in an election year that many political analysts think will favor Republicans.

None of Missouri's congressional districts are considered true political tossups between Democrats and Republicans.

"The boundaries have been redrawn to make the districts relatively safe, at least, for one party or the other," Connor said. "And once somebody's elected, it's inertia — it's really, really difficult to get them unseated."

Like Turk, several other congressional challengers are making an encore run after losing in prior years.

Perennial candidate Leonard Steinman is running as a Republican against GOP Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer in the 3rd District while his wife, Velma Steinman, is running as a Democrat. They have hand-painted joint campaign signs on old vehicles that they park in conspicuous spots.

"When you run against an incumbent, it definitely is a dealt deck," Leonard Steinman said. "But at least I'm giving it a try."

Retired math teacher Jim Evans is one of two Democrats running in the predominantly Republican 7th District held by GOP Rep. Billy Long. Evans got 31 percent of the vote against Long in 2012. This year, he has loaned $45,000 to his campaign.

"If you look at my chances of winning in southwest Missouri, it is pretty obvious that I'm making a gamble," Evans said. "I think of it as just volunteer work. I think our country needs to be fixed."


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