NEW ORLEANS -- Rep. Mike Pence was on his way out of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference when he stopped near the front door of the Riverside Hilton to speak for a few moments to a man in a blue suit. Business cards were exchanged between aides, a few photos were snapped, and then the chairman of the House Republican Conference continued on his way.
News had just happened, but this brief meeting did not result in a headline on the Drudge Report, nor was it reported by any of the network correspondents attending the conference, none of whom would have recognized the man in the blue suit. The big headlines from the four-day GOP gathering included Mitt Romney's narrow win in the 2012 presidential straw poll, a controversial quote from Ron Paul and the umpteenth reiteration of the major media's favorite political question: Whither Sarah Palin?
Far from the main stage, away from the television cameras and unnoticed by reporters covering the speeches by famous names, other stories were developing, stories of potentially greater importance -- and certainly more urgent than the question of who will carry the Republican banner in a presidential election more than two years in the future.
For hundreds of GOP congressional candidates, the only date that matters is not 2012, but Nov. 2 -- now less than seven months away -- and for many of those candidates, their campaigns will end sooner, as multi-candidate primaries have become the rule rather than the exception in a mid-term free-for-all perhaps destined to be known as the Year of Republican Hope.
Whether that Hope will result in Change Conservatives Can Believe In is the big question of 2010, a mathematical calculation that may involve the man in the blue suit, Ray McKinney, who had never met Mike Pence before their Saturday afternoon conversation near the front door of the Hilton.
In the few minutes of their impromptu meeting, however, McKinney conveyed to Pence the necessary information: He is a candidate in Georgia's 12th District, seeking the Republican nomination to take on Rep. John Barrow, a "Blue Dog" Democrat whose peculiar vulnerability is one factor in the calculations for Nov. 2. If the GOP can make a net gain of 40 seats in this fall's mid-terms, Nancy Pelosi will become the former Speaker of the House, and Republicans cannot afford to miss any opportunity for a pickup -- especially when liberals seem determined to lend a helping hand. The story of Barrow and GA12 is the tale of a building electoral storm with enough political power to evoke memories of Hurricane Katrina's devastating impact on New Orleans in August 2005 -- a year before Pelosi and the Democrats broke Republicans' 12-year control of the House.
The 12th District was one of two new congressional seats Georgia gained after the 2000 Census, when Democrats still controlled the Georgia General Assembly and sought to carve out a stronghold for their party. Yet GA12 has proven to be more conservative than its designers anticipated, rated only a "plus one" for Democrats by respected national analyst Charlie Cook, and has a see-saw history. Republican Max Burns was elected to Congress by a surprising 10-point margin in the 2002 mid-terms, but lost his 2004 re-election bid to Barrow by four points. In 2006, otherwise a disastrous wipeout for the GOP, Burns came back to challenge Barrow and lost by fewer than 900 votes out of some 140,000 ballots cast. And then came 2008, when Obama's promise of Hope and Change proved the electoral tide that lifted all Democratic boats.
With a surge of black turnout in a district where more than 40 percent of the residents are black, GA12 re-elected Barrow -- a white moderate -- by a whopping 2-to-1 majority over a former GOP congressional aide, John Stone. Here, however, the story took a strange twist. In 2008, Barrow first had to overcome a Democratic primary challenge from state Sen. Regina Thomas, a black legislator with a far more liberal record and message. After winning that primary with 76 percent of the vote, Barrow then got a general-election boost from Barack Obama. However, Barrow has since voted against key items in the Obama agenda -- including two votes against the recently-passed health-care law.
Thomas has returned this year to challenge Barrow again in the July 20 Democratic primary, only now she has the enthusiastic backing of liberal groups like MoveOn.org and Blue America PAC, and the powerful DailyKos blog site, which seem as eager as any Republican to make Blue Dog Democrats an extinct species. Enter McKinney, a nuclear power project manager who two years ago ran a grassroots campaign for the GOP nomination and scored a surprising 32 percent of the primary vote. "We weren't expected to get 10 percent of the vote," says McKinney, who describes the style of his first campaign as "Joe the Candidate."
Now a state party committeeman, McKinney had been supporting a promising Republican candidate, Vidalia physician Dr. Wayne Mosely, who subsequently decided not to seek the GA12 seat. Other candidates -- including Savannah Tea Party founder Jeanne Seaver and Carl Smith, fire chief in the town of Thunderbolt near Savannah -- have declared their candidacies for the July 20 primary. On friendly terms with the other Republican candidates, McKinney says he hopes the GOP primary campaign won't "go negative," which would weaken the winner against Barrow, who he expects to emerge "bruised and battered" from the Democratic primary -- assuming, of course, that the incumbent is not upset by the liberal insurgency of Thomas, who has denounced Barrow for "six years of lies."
None of McKinney's Republican rivals have lined up the level of financial support that he expects to bring into the race. Declaring his candidacy at the end of March, he says he now has more than $100,000 campaign cash on hand and has pledges of more than $80,000 in contributions.
That was a key part of the message he came to New Orleans to convey to Republican leaders like Pence. GA12 "hasn't really been on the radar" for the national GOP level this election cycle. After talking to staff of the National Republican Congressional Committee at the conference, McKinney says the NRCC now plans to put the district on its "watch list" -- not yet a "target" race, but worth keeping an eye on as the GOP looks for opportunities to exploit in a mid-term campaign where Democratic incumbents in more liberal regions than rural Georgia are already beginning to glance nervously at the polling forecasts.
"The Road to Victory Begins in New Orleans," the cover of this weekend's conference program declared. Exactly where that road will leads between now and November is a path as unpredictable as a tropical storm, but if the Republican wave surges through Georgia's 12th District, that little-noticed encounter Saturday in the Hilton lobby could be part of a very big story on Nov. 2.