By Daniel Malloy
U.S. Rep. John Barrow campaigned as a member of the forgotten middle in Congress, winning a fifth term Tuesday night in Georgia’s closest congressional race.
With the makeup of Congress hardly changed, the question remains whether the deal-making middle can be a factor once again in negotiating the nation’s looming challenges. Barrow, who has earned renown as the House’s last remaining white Democrat from the Deep South, expressed cautious optimism Wednesday that there is a place for him and other members of the shrunken Blue Dog Democratic caucus.
“With the presidential election behind us, that being the one main thing that seemed to paralyze both sides in the last few years, then we can focus on the main problems that were put on the back burner,” the Augusta Democrat said.
Kristen Hawn, a former staffer for the Blue Dog caucus in the House who now works for Center Forward, a nonprofit that does not disclose its donors and spent $900,000 to help re-elect Barrow, said the congressman’s victory, along with that of Utah Rep. Jim Matheson and a handful of moderate Senate Democrats suggests “a palpable move to the center.”
And, she said, any major deal on looming tax hikes and spending cuts must include those moderates.
“When it comes to … fiscal issues, it’s going to have to be somewhere in the middle,” Hawn said, “particularly with the makeup of the Senate now.”
University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock was not convinced of an electoral trend, noting that many Blue Dogs retired or lost re-election. The group is down to about 15 members, including Reps. David Scott of Atlanta and Sanford Bishop of Albany.
“I don’t feel there’s a trend toward moderate Democrats,” Bullock said.
Barrow agreed that his willingness to break with his party is a rare trend, which he said is the result of congressional districts drawn to support one party or the other. Barrow’s 12th District, in fact, was newly redrawn by the Republican-run Legislature to evict him.
Barrow moved from Savannah to Augusta to remain within the new district lines. He built a substantial campaign war chest that he used on ads showing him cradling a rifle and talking about gun rights or denouncing government waste.
A contentious Republican primary and runoff, meanwhile, drained the finances of state Rep. Lee Anderson of Grovetown. Although outside money poured in — $5.8 million in all, with much of it blasting Barrow — Anderson spokesman Ryan Mahoney said the Republican did not have enough money to adequately introduce himself to the district, nor did he have the time as he did not get done with the GOP runoff until late August.
Anderson also is not perceived as particularly eloquent, and he refused to debate Barrow, helping lead many Republicans into Barrow’s corner. The district leans Republican, but Barrow won with 53.7 percent of the vote.
Chip Lake, a Republican consultant who helped run the campaign of Rick Allen, one of Anderson’s primary rivals, said Anderson’s tactic of avoiding debates hurt him because he was unable to put Barrow on the spot about voting for the federal stimulus and against repealing the Affordable Care Act — though Barrow also voted against the health care overhaul in the first place.
“The folksy, ‘Aw shucks, I’m one of you,’ style that allowed him to win the primary, it was effective in the primary,” Lake said. But “the spotlight is a lot brighter in the general election, and more people are paying attention. You’ve got to put meat on the bone, and Lee wasn’t able to do that.”
Lake said the GOP is likely to come back hard at Barrow in 2014, as midterm elections are typically bad for the party that controls the White House and the district is still favorable ground for Republicans. Lake said candidates from this year’s primary such as Allen or Wright McLeod, both of Augusta, could give it another shot, as could state Sen. Tommie Williams of Lyons.
“I imagine he’ll have a very strong challenge again in 2014,” Bullock said, “and Republicans may come up with a much more viable candidate that year.”
He drew a parallel to what happened in the 12th District a decade ago. Democrats drew the seat to lean their way, but Champ Walker turned out to be a flawed candidate and lost to Max Burns. In 2004, the seat flipped back as Burns could not hold off a Democratic attorney from Athens named John Barrow.