The Associated Press
Now that Rep. John Barrow has turned down a campaign for the U.S. Senate, the challenge ahead for the Deep South’s last white Democratic congressman will be to defy the odds a second time by winning re-election in an eastern Georgia district that was drawn to ensure his defeat.
With the 2014 primaries more than a year away, several Republicans are taking a hard look at opposing Barrow in the 12th District that sprawls across 19 mostly rural counties and includes the cities of Augusta, Statesboro, Dublin and Vidalia. One GOP candidate says he’ll be running full-time as of June, and others pondering the race said they will probably make up their minds this summer.
Barrow’s re-election to a fifth term in November was a big upset for Republicans after GOP state lawmakers redrew the district in 2011 to carve out Savannah — Barrow’s home and Democratic base — and replace it with mostly rural, conservative communities. Barrow moved to Augusta and spent more than $2.8 million on a campaign that cast him as an independent who’s pro-gun and often at odds with President Barack Obama. He defeated Republican state Rep. Lee Anderson of Grovetown with a commanding 54 percent of the vote — a margin made possible only by thousands of Mitt Romney voters crossing party lines to support Barrow.
“I know it wasn’t a fluke,” Barrow said in an interview last week. “The vast majority of American voters are dissatisfied with the (party) brands and call themselves independents. They want to judge the goods on the merits.”
Barrow raised a daunting $436,000 during the first three months of the year as the congressman weighed a possible campaign for the seat of GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss, whose planned retirement next year has drawn a crowded field of would-be Republican successors but, so far, no Democrats.
The Democrat’s decision to pass on a Senate bid may ultimately scare away some Republican challengers. Augusta attorney Wright McLeod, who unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination in a crowded primary last year, said he’s “on the fence” about running again. He suspects Barrow will be even tougher to beat in 2014 and says that’s giving him second thoughts about entering the race.
“Anybody that says it doesn’t is either lying or an idiot,” said McLeod, who sees only one upshot to Barrow seeking re-election to the House. “Hopefully it’ll keep some Republican candidates on the sidelines.”
State Sen. Tommie Williams, a Republican from Lyons, said he’s “seriously looking” at the congressional race. He said he’s not worried about battling Barrow, but questions if it’s worth going to Washington amid the current partisan gridlock.
John Stone, a veteran Republican aide on Capitol Hill who worked for the late Rep. Charlie Norwood and former Rep. Max Burns, has resigned from his current job as chief of staff to Texas Rep. John Carter so he can return to Georgia and run full-time for Barrow’s seat. It’s a comeback bid for Stone, who ran in the old 12th District in 2008 and suffered a crushing defeat. Barrow beat him by 32 percentage points.
Stone chalks up his loss more than four years ago to record Democratic turnout for Obama’s first presidential race as well as a lack of support from the national Republican Party. He said it should be a different story for Republicans seeking to oust Barrow next year — as long as they don’t blow their chances with a nasty, expensive GOP primary. Some blame a bruising, four-way Republican primary last year for giving Barrow the edge he needed to win.
“We had an absolutely awful primary in the Republican side, the typical circular firing squad we tend to do,” Stone said. “I don’t want to spend all our money on the primary before we get a chance at Barrow.”
An option, though not a likely one, would be for the GOP to agree on a nominee internally (and largely behind the scenes). Stone confirmed he’s been calling McLeod and other potential Republican candidates and asking them to stand down and let him have the Republican nomination unopposed.
Augusta businessman Rick W. Allen, who also may run again for Barrow’s seat after an unsuccessful GOP primary campaign last year, wasn’t too impressed with Stone’s offer.
“It was a shocker because, frankly, John Barrow beat John Stone by 32 points last time,” Allen said. “And I asked him, ‘How do you think you’re going to do better this time?”’
Allen paid handsomely to be the Republican runner-up in the primaries last year, when he spent $610,000 of his own money before losing a runoff.
Allen’s not letting his own financial losses stop him from considering a comeback race. He planned to meet with party leaders and key supporters during last weekend’s Republican state convention in Athens. Allen said he would likely to make up his mind soon afterward.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has named Barrow among seven House Democrats it considers the most vulnerable in 2014. NRCC staff are being dedicated full-time to helping defeat them.
Barrow insists he’s not worrying now about a race that’s still a year away.
“There’s a time for campaigning and this definitely isn’t it,” he said. “The best way to apply to be rehired for a job like this is to work harder at it than anybody else.”