VIDALIA, Ga. -- John Barrow is a Democrat endorsed by Barack Obama. Or, depending on who he's talking to, John Barrow is fighting against Barack Obama and the Democrats. Judging from his campaign's mixed messages, Barrow believes a majority of voters in Georgia's 12th District want to re-elect a one-man bipartisan compromise.
In a mailing sent out last week, the Democrat congressman told independent voters that he is "not a rubber stamp" and bragged that he has "stood up to Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats in Washington."
Of course, that's not the message Barrow sent to Democrats. The three-term incumbent sent them a different mailer, featuring a photo of the president with the slogan "Now More Than Ever" and the message: "John Barrow is working hand in hand with President Obama." Meanwhile, listeners to black-oriented radio stations in the southeast Georgia district are hearing ads that tout Obama's endorsement of Barrow.
Barrow's schizophrenic campaign demonstrates the precarious political calculus for a Blue Dog Democrat seeking re-election in a year when his party is unpopular and when Republicans are on the winning side of what has been termed the "enthusiasm gap." Major polls show the GOP strongly leading among likely voters on the so-called "generic" ballot question -- by 10 points at CNN and 13 points at Fox. These polls and other indicators have been widely interpreted as signaling huge gains for Republicans in the mid-term election -- what Weekly Standard analyst Jay Cost has called the "Hulk" scenario, with the GOP adding upwards of 60 seats in the House of Representatives.
If an overwhelming Election Day tsunami comes crashing down on Democrats tomorrow, it could end Barrow's six-year career as a flip-flopping congressional weathervane and make his Republican challenger Ray McKinney the Cinderella story of 2010. National political oddsmakers rate Barrow a heavy favorite to win re-election -- primarily because of a 9-to-1 fundraising advantage over McKinney -- but none of those oddsmakers have driven down U.S. 25 from Augusta to Waynesboro. McKinney for Congress signs line the highway and there is nary a Barrow sign to be seen. If the national pundits had been listening to their car radios while they made that drive, they might have heard McKinney's folksy voice in one of the ads now running in regular rotation on stations throughout the 12th District. Nor have the pundits talked to disaffected Democrats like the former Barrow supporter near Swainsboro who now has McKinney's sign in his front yard and gave the Republican candidate an earful in a recent phone conversation. "That son of a bitch won't return my phone calls," the Emanuel County resident said of the Democrat incumbent. McKinney says he's heard similar complaints from many other former Barrow supporters.
It has been said that the plural of anecdote is data, and McKinney and his campaign staffers say several statistical measures point their way. In Democrat-leaning counties that had heavy early voting and strong numbers for Obama in 2008, early voting totals are much lower this year and reported to be splitting 50/50 between Barrow and McKinney. There is also evidence that Barrow (who was challenged by black former state Sen. Regina Thomas in the Democratic primary) isn't generating much enthusiasm this year from black voters. Although 45 percent of 12th District residents are black, they reportedly made up only 35 percent of early voters this year -- and not all of them are voting for Barrow.
None of this has been reported outside Georgia, which is probably why New York Times analyst Nate Silver predicted Sunday that Barrow would be re-elected with 61 percent of the vote -- a forecast that McKinney communications director Tom Krause laughs off as an absurdity. Silver seems to have included in his calculations the anomalous result in 2008, when the Obama surge helped Barrow win 66 percent of the vote. But this year is far more likely to resemble the 2006 mid-term, when Barrow was re-elected by a margin of just 864 votes. "You take 2008 out of the equation and the numbers look entirely different," Krause says. "In 2008, you had thousands and thousands of first-time voters who are not coming back for John Barrow. They're not coming back for [Democratic gubernatorial candidate] Roy Barnes."
As in so many places across the country, many voters in Georgia's 12th District -- which encompasses one-sixth of the land area of the state, with 19 counties and parts of three others -- are discontented with the Obama administration's failure to cope with the economic downturn. Unemployment is high here (11.8 percent in Toombs County) and McKinney, a project manager who works on nuclear power plants, has published a 19-page job-creation plan. His grassroots-oriented campaign has been timed to peak on Election Day.
"The one thing we knew was that we couldn't go toe-to-toe with John Barrow on the money front," McKinney explained Sunday afternoon as he leaned against his SUV in front of his campaign headquarters on Main Street here. He got a big boost three weeks ago when he was endorsed by Sarah Palin, outside groups have made some independent expenditures, and the state GOP is supporting McKinney's get-out-the-vote operation. However, the disparity in financial resources still required the challenger to husband his resources until the final weeks of the campaign. Radio listeners in the district are now hearing an ad featuring sound bites from McKinney's one and only debate with the incumbent. "I agree with a lot of what Ray's just said.… What I'm talking about is substantially the same and entirely consistent with what Ray's talking about," Barrow says in the ad, which ends with McKinney telling listeners: "On Nov. 2, you should vote for Ray McKinney for Congress. I wonder if John Barrow will agree with that, too?"
Last week, John Fund of the Wall Street Journal picked this race as one of "five districts that could deliver upset victories." Based on the campaign's internal polling, McKinney says the outcome of this race is still in the hands of independent voters who will show up on Election Day. As for Barrow, McKinney says: "We know what he knows, which is that he's in trouble."
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