Look at the headlines over the past week and it would seem that Democrat Jim Barksdale’s U.S. Senate campaign is spinning out of control.
Barksdale’s campaign manager and two other top staffers have departed. He’s been dissed by yet another Democratic elder in the state as others in the party who initially passed on the chance to challenge Republican incumbent Johnny Isakson continue to publicly express their regret.
And then there are the recent poll numbers that show the millionaire with dismal levels of support for any year, but particularly one where Hillary Clinton is polling within the margin of error in Georgia. In the national press, Barkdale’s been completely shut out of discussions about the state potentially turning purple.
Barksdale and his remaining staff are putting their best face forward regarding an effort that seems increasingly ill-fated.
“All the polling numbers being citied today were done before we started our television advertising,” Steve Murphy, a strategist for the campaign, said Wednesday. “Stay tuned.”
What is clear is that Barksdale faces a steep climb over the next 40 days if he wants to deny Isakson a third term in the Senate.
Building an infrastructure
When The Atlanta Journal-Constitution caught up with Barksdale earlier this month, the investment manager was optimistic as he crisscrossed metro Atlanta for a series of meet and greets with Democratic Party volunteers and student leaders from a handful of local universities, among others.
During an interview at party headquarters in a struggling corner of south Fulton County, Barksdale said he was finally hitting his stride as a candidate.
“It’s come a long way,” Barksdale said of his campaign.“When I first started I was not used to speaking in public at all — I’d really never given a speech or not really much of one. To a certain extent we’re still introducing a few things here and there, but the message has gotten pretty clear.”
Indeed, the man on display was one who came off significantly more comfortable as a campaigner than he was ahead of the Democratic primary this spring, when he dodged the media and didn’t hold any public events for more than a month. The question is whether it’s too little, too late.
Barksdale has dug deep into his own pockets to finance his run — spending more than $3 million of his own money as of midsummer — as national fundraising groups have largely kept their distance. His campaign’s own fundraising efforts, however, have been slow to get off the ground.
“It’s certainly not your typical campaign in terms of planning,” Barksdale said. “(Libertarian Senate candidate Allen) Buckley’s run, what, three times before, and Isakson’s run five times. So people shouldn’t judge me by that standard. But we’ve made considerable progress, and there’s still time to do it.”
Barksdale’s arrival on the political stage was one that didn’t come together until the weeks before the state’s qualifying period in early March. It was only after a stream of Democrats passed up the chance to challenge Isakson that Barksdale began seriously considering a run in February, he said. From there he had to set up a campaign infrastructure from the ground up as he began the formidable task of introducing himself to an electorate that knew nothing about him.
A bit of the Bern
Barksdale’s initial outreach started with a cap, meant as a symbol of his outsider status, as well as a reminder that bad trade deals have incentivized many U.S. manufacturers, including hat makers, to move abroad. In recent weeks Barksdale has doubled down on an anti-establishment message not dissimilar to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ that is sharply critical of past trade deals and an economic system that he says benefits the wealthy and special interests. His new campaign manager is a former Sanders aide, and many of his campaign volunteers have also been culled from the Vermonter’s camp.
Barksdale says that message of a broken Washington is one that appeals to Democrats, as well as the Republican and independent voters who have gravitated toward Donald Trump.
“They know something is wrong, that their voice is not being heard,” Barksdale said, “and they know that the money in politics has robbed them of their voice.”
There is a question of how much that message will resonate, particularly among the state’s Democrats, who broke overwhelmingly for Clinton in the March primary.
“This is not Bernie country,” said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. “It’s not clear in the messaging I’ve seen from Barksdale that he is making an explicit play to those voters. So apparently he’s hoping they will see the ball cap ad and that will mobilize them. I think he’s going to need a lot more help than that.”
On the trail
Time on the trail has helped Barksdale grow more relaxed and personable in public. While meeting with students at Georgia Tech, he spoke of his own life: how a bad investment his father made ended up costing Barksdale much of his college savings and how his own background in finance compelled him to run for higher office.
But Barksdale still isn’t entirely over his initial awkwardness. When a student asked him about whether he supported raising the national minimum wage to $15 an hour, Barksdale launched into a wonky and convoluted explanation that included references to economic theory, interest rates and offshore tax shelters.
Overall, Barksdale’s biggest challenge was and continues to be building name recognition and enthusiasm among voters, particularly minorities and people under 40 who are the least likely to support Isakson.
An AJC survey in August showed him polling strongest among those two demographics, with black voters and young people breaking for Barksdale over Isakson by 71 percentage points and 5 percentage points, respectively. But he’ll also need to win a decent chunk of white voters in order to be competitive on Election Day. Barksdale says he’s optimistic there’s room to grow among voters who don’t know him but are receptive to an anti-Washington message.
Something that was evident at Barksdale’s recent campaign events was that even the support of party faithful in attendance was not necessarily guaranteed.
Activist Brenda Floyd, a retired federal worker from Fulton County who was donning a bedazzled Hillary Clinton brooch, said she would need to do more research before she decided on who she would support.
“Just because you look nice and you’re friendly and you’re photographic, people need to know what the issues are that impact their everyday lives,” Floyd said, referring to both Barksdale and Isakson.
Barksdale has begun blanketing the state with television ads in order to get out his central message: that Isakson has hurt Georgia and the country by approving a string of trade deals. In campaign events, Barksdale has also highlighted Isakson’s past votes in favor of Wall Street deregulation and moving entitlement programs toward privatization that he says benefits special interests.
The Democrat promises a more critical approach to trade and government spending, as well as support for a comprehensive immigration overhaul and a constitutional amendment essentially reversing the Supreme Court’s recent money-in-politics decisions.
That message has some voters energized.
“He’s exciting for me because I have a business background,” said Armani Simmons, a junior at Morehouse College who’s studying the subject. “He’s got his own style with the hat and everything. He’s definitely personable.”
But not everyone feels the same way.
“I feel like he didn’t have any specifications about what exactly he wanted to do and exactly what he wanted to change,” said Alliyah Francis, a junior at Spelman College who generally identifies as a Democrat.
Isakson courts Democrats
Isakson, meanwhile, has shown no hesitation making plays for some of those very Democratic voters unsure about Barksdale.
The Republican’s first two television ads have emphasized his bipartisan work on Capitol Hill, and he’s had some success wooing members of Georgia’s old Democratic guard.
During a recent fundraiser in Warner Robins, Isakson took time between snapping pictures with the building’s security guards and catching up with old pals such as former Gov. Sonny Perdue, to extol the virtues of reaching across the aisle to get work done.
Reflecting on his days in the Georgia Legislature when he was one of few elected Republicans — “Custer had better odds at Little Big Horn,” he said — Isakson said he learned to take the advice of his father to work with others and avoid arguing, “because even a broken clock is right twice every 24 hours.”
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