SAVANNAH, Ga. — Four years after candidate Barack Obama endorsed him in a radio ad, Democratic Rep. John Barrow has kicked off his fall re-election campaign by trying to put a comfortable distance between himself and the president.
In recent TV ads, the congressman rattles off instances in which he has voted against Obama’s agenda – the cap-and-trade policy to control greenhouse gases, overseas trade deals and most notably, his controversial vote opposing the president’s overhaul of the health care system.
“When the president’s right for Georgia, I support him. When he’s not, I don’t. It’s that simple,” Barrow says in one ad as he leans on a whitewashed wooden fence.
Whether Barrow wins a fifth term in his campaign against Republican Lee Anderson, a state lawmaker and farmer from Grovetown, will largely rest on how successfully the House incumbent can convince voters in a largely rural swath of eastern Georgia that his independent streak matters more than his party label. A loss for the 56-year-old Barrow would cost Democrats their last white congressman from the Deep South.
It was just this week that Anderson emerged as Barrow’s opponent after a primary that included an August runoff and a recount Wednesday that confirmed the Republican’s margin of victory of just 159 votes.
Even before a challenger was named, national GOP groups were focused on painting Barrow and Obama as political soul mates.
Anderson has made a habit of saying he’s running against both Barrow and Obama.
“Now is the time to work together to stop the Obama-Barrow agenda that’s saddling our children and grandchildren with debt and threatening the future of our country,” Anderson said in a statement after the recount sealed his nomination.
BARROW IS FACING a battle for re-election. Republican-led Georgia lawmakers redrew his 12th District seat to carve out Savannah, the congressman’s home of six years and his biggest Democratic base, and replaced the city with conservative-leaning rural and suburban communities.
Still, Barrow insists he can win.
“Folks in the new counties, just like folks in the old counties, they’re sick and tired of hyper-partisanship and the blind partisanship of folks who only need to know what play is our team running today,” Barrow said during a stop Thursday in Savannah.
REPUBLICAN LEADERS in the district admit that beating Barrow won’t be easy. As of Aug. 1, the incumbent had $1.3 million in the bank to defend his seat – roughly $10 for every $1 Anderson had on hand.
“I know not to underestimate John Barrow,” said Jim Benton, the GOP chairman for Bulloch County, a farming community the congressman carried in 2008 but lost in 2010. “With that much money in the bank, I know he can turn out a lot of votes.”
Anderson, 55, defeated three Republicans for the nomination with support from a network of fellow state legislators, mayors, sheriffs, councilmen and other local officials throughout the district’s 19 counties. It doesn’t hurt that the hay farmer was a longtime president the Farm Bureau in Columbia County.
“Grassroots and meeting people one-on-one is where his strength is, as opposed to just hitting the air waves and the major markets,” Benton said of Anderson.
The National Republican Congressional Committee is leading the attack in the district’s TV markets and has reserved $900,000 in air time through the election – a move that offsets Barrow’s fundraising advantage.
The GOP has sought to undercut Barrow’s vote against Obama on the health care law by reminding voters that the congressman has also refused to side with Republicans voting to repeal the measure. Barrow took an early jab at Anderson last week in an ad that accuses him of supporting a budget plan that would make deep cuts in Medicare and Social Security.
Still, voters comparing the candidates on economic issues might have some trouble telling them apart. Both Barrow and Anderson support a constitutional amendment to require Congress to pass balanced budgets. Barrow also supports a bipartisan bill to make congressmen forfeit their paychecks if they fail to pass budgets on time, while Anderson has pledged to slash his House salary to help cut spending.
After Obama’s endorsement helped Barrow win a contested Democratic primary in 2008, the congressman outraged many Georgia Democrats by voting against the president’s health care overhaul in 2010. Since then, Barrow has refused to join with Republicans voting to repeal the law, saying he believes the flawed measure can be fixed without scrapping it.
“We’re not happy with all his votes,” said Lowell Greenbaum, the Democratic Party chairman for Richmond County. “But we have a choice: Do we have a man who’s represented us for eight years as a Democrat or are we going to elect Lee Anderson, who would be a straight opponent to the Democrats?”
Underscoring his sometimes strained relations with his own party, Barrow stayed away from the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., this week and instead focused on events in his district.
“I don’t think it’s meant to be a slap in the face to the president,” Greenbaum, a convention delegate, said of the congressman’s absence from North Carolina. “I think it’s his view that he needs to contact so many new people that he needs the time.”