SAVANNAH, Ga. — While Republicans in eastern Georgia say they’re more committed than ever to defeating Democratic U.S. Rep. John Barrow in the fall elections, GOP voters might have a tough time choosing a nominee in the primary.
Barrow, of Augusta, won re-election to Congress in 2012 even after his 12th District seat was redrawn to favor Republicans. He’s the last white Democrat from the Deep South in the U.S. House, and the national GOP has made him a top target this year.
Two Augusta Republicans, construction company owner Rick W. Allen and former congressional aide John Stone, have been running full time for a shot at ousting Barrow since last summer. Allen, the runner-up in the 2012 GOP primary, seemed the clear frontrunner last fall with more than $256,000 in fundraising – nearly four times Stone’s money. And a two-man primary would ensure no runoff to divert extra time and effort from Republicans’ goal of ousting Barrow.
With barely three months left until the May 20 primary, the Republican primary race no longer looks so simple.
A new GOP contender, two-term state Rep. Delvis Dutton, of Glennville, launched his campaign last week.
His announcement came less than a week after Allen released his latest fundraising totals, which fell short of his previous contributions. Allen raised $78,311 in the last three months of 2013. That’s down from $124,781 in the previous quarter and $191,675 in the same fourth-quarter period when he ran in 2012.
“It could very likely lead to a runoff,” said Stone, who lagged Allen in fourth-quarter fundraising by just $11,655 but still has less than half as much money in the bank. He said a three-way primary fight could exhaust the candidates’ accounts, especially if nobody gets more than 50 percent of the vote and forces a two-month runoff.
“Regardless of who the candidate is, by May 21 Barrow is going to have $1.5 million in the bank and we’re going to have zero. If we do get into a runoff, then we’re going to be pushing into July with zero cash on hand. That’s my concern.”
Dewey Galeas, the Republican Party chairman for Columbia County, said Allen and Stone appear “fairly neck-and-neck with their fundraising.” But he said it’s likely too late for a newcomer to jump into the primary race and force things into a runoff.
Allen could fall back on his personal wealth if campaign donors aren’t writing enough checks. He poured $610,000 of his own money into the primary two years ago. So far, he has limited any self-funding to $40,000.
“Rick is the only serious Republican in the race,” said Dan McLagan, Allen’s spokesman. “He’s going to win the primary without a runoff and he’s going to beat Barrow.”
Dutton, who was elected to the Statehouse from Tattnall County in 2010, insists he can catch up and make himself known across the 12th District’s sprawling 19-county region that includes the cities of Augusta, Statesboro, Dublin and Vidalia.
That could be a challenge considering he insists he’ll finish out the 40-day legislative session that could keep lawmakers in Atlanta through March.
Dutton’s not the only newcomer to the race to oust Barrow. Diane Vann, a former Army nurse, filed paperwork to run in December. She lives in Macon, 50 miles outside the district. That doesn’t prevent Vann from legally running, but it’s typically difficult for nonresidents to garner much support.
Allen and Stone have both been traveling and raising money full-time since last summer. Both men recently spoke at meetings of the Vidalia Tea Party, where members were impressed with Allen’s business experience and Stone’s promise to vote for new leadership to replace Speaker John Boehner and other top-ranking House Republicans, said Jim Anderson, who heads the tea-party group.
“Dutton would have to really come in and I guess impress us,” Anderson said. “He’s starting off not being known here at all now. So I think he would have an uphill battle.”
Meanwhile, Barrow has no opposition in the Democratic primary as he seeks a sixth term in Congress. He also reported $1.23 million in the bank as of Dec. 31. That means he’s got $12 ready to spend for every dollar held by his closest Republican competitor.
The question for Barrow will be if he can maintain crossover support among some voters who typically vote Republican. That’s what happened in 2012, when Barrow won re-election with 54 percent of the vote in a district that Mitt Romney easily carried in the presidential race.
“We know it’s going to be a tough race,” said Lowell Greenbaum, the Democratic Party chairman for Richmond County. “But from what I’ve seen, Congressman Barrow feels very good about it.”