There was no big crowd at this recent meet-and-greet in Augusta less than three weeks before Election Day. But for Barrow, the last white Democratic congressman from the Deep South, these voters represent a key constituency that he needs to win re-election: Republicans.
“I genuinely believe we have to try to work with folks who don’t share the same starting point,” Barrow tells the guests, urging them to set partisan differences aside. “We have to talk to the other side. I was raised to believe that was the right thing to do. It’s also the only way to get anything done in Congress.”
Barrow’s 12th District in eastern Georgia has been a swing seat since he first won election in 2004. But the stakes are different this year as he seeks a fifth term. Republican lawmakers redrew the lines of Barrow’s district last year to cut out Savannah, his home and a huge part of his Democratic base.
Now, the congressman is running in a district designed to give the edge to his opponent, Lee Anderson, a Republican state lawmaker and farmer from Grovetown. The bottom line is Barrow can’t win without attracting crossover votes from those supporting Mitt Romney for president and other GOP candidates down the ballot.
The hostess of the Augusta home gathering Thursday, real-estate agent Gwen Fulcher Young, is one such supporter. She’s the wife of former Augusta Mayor Bob Young, a Republican who served in Bush’s cabinet. On the back windshield of her Jeep Commander, she’s plastered a Barrow bumper sticker just above one for Romney.
Fulcher Young said she found Barrow’s opponent lacking in gravitas, with a muddy drawl that sometimes defies basic grammar. Anderson, a hay farmer whose campaign logo features a tractor, has played up his country roots in appealing to the district’s largely rural base. It hasn’t helped that Anderson, after stumbling in some GOP primary debates, has refused to share a stage with Barrow, a Harvard-educated lawyer.
“Sending Lee Anderson to Washington would be like sending Honey Boo Boo up there,” Fulcher Young said, referring to the 7-year-old reality TV star known for her Southern sass. “It just seems to me that he represents the ignorance that people used to think of when they think of Southerners.”
Republican leaders in Georgia insist Anderson is their best chance ever to oust Barrow.
State GOP chairman Sue Everhart said that rural voters in cities such as Statesboro and Vidalia are eager to send a fellow farmer to Washington and that party defectors such as Fulcher Young are “few and far between.” About 12 people showed up at her event for Barrow, out of about 50 who were invited.
“Lee Anderson is anything but backward. I can tell you that,” Everhart said. “He speaks like a good old boy. He is a good old boy. But he cares about this state.”
Fulcher Young’s husband isn’t supporting Barrow — though he said he’s bothered by Anderson’s refusal to debate.
Other Republican voters in the 12th District said they’re torn between loyalty to the GOP and a Democratic congressman who they believe has represented them well.
Barrow has managed to stay in office by casting himself as an independent who votes the agenda of his constituents rather than that of party leaders in Washington. Critics say he’s a two-faced politician trying to pander to both sides. Barrow bucked fellow Democrats when he voted against President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, but later refused to join Republicans voting to repeal it.
Dr. Horace Deal, a Statesboro optometrist, is a conservative who typically leans Republican. But he said Barrow won his vote by making himself accessible to the doctor and fellow members of the American Optometric Association. During Washington visits, when other congressmen sent staffers to meet with the group’s officers, Barrow greeted them personally.
While he disagrees with Barrow on some issues, Deal said the congressman reminds him of the old-school Democrats who once ruled Georgia politics.
“Part of my history, my parents grew up as farm folks and they used to call them Dixiecrats back in the day,” Deal said. “John strikes me as being close to the old, conservative Democrats.”
Swainsboro Mayor Charles Schwabe, also a Republican, said he’s still struggling to make up his mind. Barrow has helped the small city get federal funding to help pay for a new police and public safety building as well as grant money for water and sewer improvements.
But Schwabe said he’s hesitant to support Barrow because he worries re-electing him will help the Democratic leaders in Congress, namely Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Harry Reid.
“John has done a good job for my city. He’s been a good congressman and been a good help to us,” Schwabe said. “But then you’re empowering the national Democratic Party when you put your vote down. It’s a tough situation.
“To me, John’s biggest opponent is not Lee Anderson,” the mayor said. “It’s Pelosi and Reid and that leadership crowd. It’s killing him.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee has spent more than $1.2 million on the race so far to help Anderson, mostly with attack ads trying to link Barrow with President Barack Obama.
Anderson’s campaign insists the Republican challenger will pick up some crossover votes from Democrats who see Barrow as more two-faced than independent.
“Voters, despite their political affiliation, know they can trust Lee Anderson,” said Anderson spokesman Ryan Mahoney, who dismissed Barrow as a “slick-talking trial lawyer.”
Barrow, who reported having $1.19 million to fund the last month of campaigning compared with $174,297 for Anderson, has been playing up endorsements by groups such as the National Federation of Independent Business and the National Rifle Association.
And Barrow’s not above playing up his own Southern accent. Last week, his campaign rolled out a TV ad that features the congressman showing off his grandfather’s revolver and his father’s bolt-action rifle. The spot ends with Barrow delivering a tag line that obliterates any trace of his Harvard education.
“These are my guns now,” Barrow says in the ad. “And ain’t nobody gonna take ‘em away.”