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Courting Republicans, Georgia Democrat Tries To Keep His Seat

Rep. John Barrow speaks at First African Baptist Church in Dublin, Ga. Barrow needs African-Americans to turn out on Election Day, but they're not enough to put him over the top.
Sarah McCammon
Rep. John Barrow speaks at First African Baptist Church in Dublin, Ga. Barrow needs African-Americans to turn out on Election Day, but they're not enough to put him over the top.

For Republicans, Democrats in red states seem ripe for the picking in midterm election years, when the GOP usually has an advantage in voter turnout. One of their targets this year is Rep. John Barrow of Georgia, who faces one of the tightest races in the nation.

Barrow, often described as the "last white Democrat in Congress from the Deep South," is trying to hold onto his seat.

At First African Baptist Church in Dublin, Ga., a bronze plaque beside the front door reminds visitors that this is where a 14-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. gave his first public speech.

Pastor Keith Anderson stands behind the pulpit and welcomes Barrow to the service, while making a dig at Washington gridlock.

"I'm glad, Congressman Barrow, that I don't have to sit in the Senate or in the Congress and the only way my business gets done is if I get the majority to support [it]," Anderson says.

Even if Congress seems ineffective, Anderson assures his congregation, there is power in prayer to get things done.

Barrow tells the audience of about 60 people that even in Washington, he gets things done; he ticks off efforts to bring jobs to Georgia by promoting nuclear energy and expanding the Port of Savannah.

Barrow is comfortable here, among traditionally Democratic African-American voters. He describes himself as a Democrat in the tradition of his father, a judge known for helping to keep public schools open after desegregation. Barrow needs African-Americans to turn out on Election Day — they make up more than a third of his district. But they're not enough to put him over the top.

University of Georgia political scientist Chuck Bullock says that's why Barrow spends a lot of time trying to convince white Republicans in his district that he represents them.

"They see John Barrow and they go, 'Oh, wait a minute, yeah I'm a Republican but this guy Barrow, yeah he's pretty good,' " Bullock says. " 'He's been to our festival, I've met him. He came to our high school graduation. I'm going to make an exception.' "

At the Huddle House diner in tiny East Dublin, Barrow stops for a bite to eat in between church services. He chats with Jack and Dianne Conley, a white couple in their 60s. They say they normally vote Republican, but they tell Barrow — who's endorsed by the NRA — that they like his conservative positions on issues like gun rights.

"Thank you," Barrow says. "I take my Constitution neat; I don't water it down."

Barrow isn't just running against his Republican challenger, Rick Allen. In this conservative district, he has to distance himself from the national Democratic Party and the president. In this TV ad, he refers to an old political joke that says if you want a friend in Washington, D.C., you should get a dog.

"Well, I wouldn't wish Washington on a dog," Barrow says, tossing a ball to a yellow lab.

Along with his homespun language and folksy demeanor, Barrow repeatedly portrays himself as an independent voice who has opposed President Obama on issues including health reform. Another ad touts his voting record, saying he has sided with House Republicans more than half the time.

But Barrow is up against a well-funded Republican effort to replace him with one of their own. The conservative American Future Fund, an outside group backed by the Koch brothers, has put nearly $1 million behind Barrow's Republican challenger. In ads and on the stump, Allen tries to paint Barrow as "two-faced" and a rubber stamp for Obama administration policies.

But Democrats are hitting back with big money of their own — including more than $130,000 on a new ad this week. They're trying to keep Barrow in place, and dash Republican hopes that this will be the year Georgia's 12th Congressional district turns from blue to red.

Copyright 2014 Georgia Public Broadcasting

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.