John Barrow is grinning.
As the congressman presents certificates to elementary school students who read 20 books each, and their parents snap photos, Barrow sprinkles another dollop of goodwill in the 12th Congressional District.
The Augusta Democrat’s relentless hand-to-hand politicking and centrist voting record have helped him hang on in a district that leans right and made him, for Republicans in Washington and Atlanta, Captain Ahab’s elusive white whale.
The five Republicans seeking to oust Barrow in the fall — Rick Allen, Delvis Dutton, John Stone, Diane Vann and Eugene Yu — envision riding a national wave against the new health care law and a midterm election turnout favoring the GOP. Outside money and attention are likely to pour in again for Georgia’s only swing seat in the U.S. House.
But at this point some of his Republicans constituents see Barrow as entrenched and tolerable for his party-crossing ways and attention to the district. A recent Tuesday, in which he honored “Barrow’s Bookworms” at three schools and worked the room at the Kiwanis Club, was typical.
“Barrow will be hard to beat because he’s got the best constituent services I’ve ever seen,” said Blake Tillery, the Republican chairman of the Toombs County Commission, who said Barrow sometimes shows up at lightly attended commission meetings. “The man’s everywhere.”
But Allen senses an anti-incumbent vibe on the campaign trail, proven by the recent entries of Yu and Dutton in the race.
“People saw Barrow as being vulnerable,” Allen said, “and they saw an opportunity to jump in and try to win a primary and go after him.”
For starters, all the candidates vow to debate Barrow. It would seem obvious for any challenger, except that the 2012 nominee — former state Rep. Lee Anderson — declined to let the Harvard Law-trained incumbent run rhetorical rings around him.
Anderson’s verbal shortcomings and lack of policy depth, not to mention a well-funded and aggressive campaign from Barrow, led to striking results. President Barack Obama got 43.6 percent of the vote in the district, while Barrow won 53.7 percent.
Georgia Republicans redrew the 12th District ahead of the 2012 election to get rid of Barrow, the last white Democrat in the U.S. House from the Deep South.
Barrow, who moved from Savannah to Augusta to remain within the district, likely faces an even bigger disadvantage this year as midterm election turnout skews older and whiter.
In addition, the president’s party tends to lose seats in midterms, and Obama’s low-to-middling approval rating does not bode well for Democrats.
The Republicans have contrasting styles they hope to deploy against the incumbent.
Allen, who owns a construction company, is again helping power his bid with his own money. When asked about lessons learned from 2012, Allen’s replies are mostly technical: He needs to advertise on Macon and Albany TV to reach far-flung corners of the district, and he hired a digital media consultant. Allen bragged about getting 120,000 Facebook likes, though the most popular city for his “fans” is Houston, Texas.
Allen emphasizes that he wants to bring his business know-how to Washington to “ask tough questions” of regulators and propose audits of federal agencies.
But his business background has provided attack fodder as well. Over two decades, his R.W. Allen & Associates obtained $100 million worth of government construction contracts, including two that were funded by a local option sales tax — a sensitive topic for Republican primary voters.
The GOP nominee against Barrow in 2008, Stone has spent the most time working in Washington — as an aide to then-U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood of Georgia and U.S. Rep. John Carter of Texas — and is the most aggressive crusader against D.C.
He pledges to vote out all the House GOP leaders, though he says he likes Speaker John Boehner personally, as Boehner gave Stone’s 2008 campaign $10,000. Still, Stone repeats his anti-leadership oath in a TV ad in which he fires a cannon.
Stone also pushes for new policy beyond the low-taxes, reduce-regulation mantra espoused by Republicans across the country. He wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but in its place Stone proposes opening up the federal employees’ health benefits program to all Americans who want to buy in. Instead of subsidizing low-income families to buy insurance, Stone would pump the money into community health centers to deliver free- and reduced-cost care.
The plan “is going to grate on some Republicans wrong, too,” Stone said. “You know what? It’s a new century and we’ve got to have new ways of doing it.”
In February, Dutton, a two-term state representative from Glenville, jumped into the race, and the National Republican Congressional Committee helped set up his campaign. The NRCC says it did so as a courtesy and is not picking a side in the primary, but the move raised eyebrows.
Dutton does not claim NRCC backing but said when he expressed interest in the race the NRCC was “thrilled that we were considering this because of the lack of excitement and the movement that we were seeing in the district.”
Dutton, 36, provides a generational contrast to his 50- and 60-something foes, and he chuckles at the thought of being labeled as an establishment tool. In Atlanta he got under the skin of House GOP leaders by opposing initiatives such as state financing for a new Atlanta Falcons stadium.
But the soft-spoken Dutton is running what amounts to his first competitive race: He was the only candidate who qualified to run for his seat in 2010 and 2012.
Dutton’s well-drilling business has gone through financial strife that included judgments against him as high as $627,000 for an outstanding bank debt. Dutton said he never walked away from a debt and avoided declaring bankruptcy when many business owners would have.
Also in February, Yu ditched the U.S. Senate race, where he had failed to gain traction, for the 12th. Yu carries a big stage presence and an “American Dream” story of coming to the U.S. from South Korea as a boy with $29 in his pocket. Yu worked in a factory in high school and served in the U.S. Army and as a sheriff’s deputy, later starting a business refurbishing military vehicles.
His mere presence in the race, he says, provides an answer about how the Republican Party can appeal to minorities — a source of nationwide self-examination.
But Yu does not offer many specifics about what he wants to do in Washington or what Barrow is doing wrong, other than Barrow’s vote against repealing the law known as Obamacare. (Barrow also voted against Obamacare originally.)
Yu’s mantra, in a word, is “responsibility.”
“We have too many people in the wagon and not enough people pulling it,” he said at a debate last week in Augusta.
Yu put up $288,000 toward his campaign through March. He ran afoul of the Federal Election Commission for accepting a $50,000 donation — well beyond the legal limit — but Yu’s campaign self-reported the violation, which he said was an honest mistake by a rookie politician.
Vann, a nurse from Macon, outside the district, lost a 2010 Republican primary campaign in the neighboring 8th Congressional District. At the Augusta debate Vann hawked her book linking Obama’s agenda to “The Communist Manifesto.”
Vann said she will move to impeach leading Democrats Obama, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, whom she said are “poison” for the country.
Barrow professes to be paying no attention to his GOP foes, though one of his staffers attended the debate.
In a brief interview in Vidalia, Barrow talked up an effort with Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., to push the Obama administration to reverse planned cuts to privately run Medicare Advantage health plans. The administration reversed course in April.
For his re-election, Barrow said he plans “just to keep on doing what I’ve been doing, and that’s do the job the best that I can and as hard as I possibly can.”
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