Will 2014 spell doom for the last white House Democrat in the Deep South?
THE best political ad of the 2012 election involved Congressman John Barrow and his favourite guns.
A Democrat who represents a conservative part of Georgia, Mr Barrow used his 30-second spot to woo two very different groups of voters, both numerous in his district: government-loathing rural whites, and blacks seeking protection against injustice. “Long before I was born, my grandfather used this little Smith & Wesson here to help stop a lynching,” Mr Barrow begins mildly, holding an antique revolver.
That “To Kill a Mockingbird” moment behind him, his tone grows steely. Brandishing his father’s rifle, he boasts of an endorsement by the National Rifle Association. These are my guns now, he declares. “And ain’t nobody going to take them away.”
Thanks to tireless constituent services and a centrist record (recently he has voted about half the time with House Republican leaders), Mr Barrow has been elected five times. He is a stalwart of the Blue Dog coalition of conservative Democrats. He is also his party’s last white House member in the Deep South.
Naturally, his survival annoys the Republican Party. Twice over the past decade Mr Barrow’s district, Georgia’s 12th, has been redrawn by Republicans to make it whiter, more rural and more conservative. In the 2008 and 2012 presidential votes his district rejected Barack Obama by double-digit margins. Still, Mr Barrow clung on.
Last moderate standing
This November will mark his hardest election to date: his first mid-term contest since the 2011 gerrymandering of his district without Mr Obama on the ballot to pull young, black and cash-strapped Democrats to the polls.
Given that Republicans in his district call him “about as conservative as he can be and still be a Democrat”, his fate will reveal something larger, too: whether voters mean it when they praise aisle-crossing pragmatism, or whether–increasingly–they see politics as a zero-sum contest between two national parties, which the other team must lose.
A recent Saturday saw Mr Barrow join a festival parade in Reidsville, a small town surrounded by fields of cotton and sweet onions. While helpers threw candy to watching children, Mr Barrow, 58, jogged between groups of citizens who do not always have much in common.
The parade’s theme was “Celebrating Diversity”. In addition to wailing fire engines, school cheerleaders and an army band, the “Sons of Confederate Veterans” were there: a group steeped in an angrily conservative brand of nostalgia.
Mr Barrow bounded over, offered a comic tale about a civil-war unit from his home county manned by doddery old men, then thanked the scowling Confederates for showing up. The congressman then strode over to a pro-diversity group, whose truck was filled with winsome children and bore a banner reading: “A Rainbow Wouldn’t Be A Rainbow If It Was Missing A Single Colour”. He thanked them for coming, too.
Mr Barrow greeted black residents of a public-housing project and hugged policemen. He flirted with old ladies, admired classic cars, thanked Reidsville’s mayor for “standing by me”, and commiserated with a man shouting about seeing him in TV ads. (“I wish it was otherwise,” Mr Barrow called back. “Good to see you in person.”)
Mr Barrow’s Republican opponent, Rick Allen, who owns a building firm, is a more conventional campaigner. He has cast Mr Barrow as a Washington insider and liberal enabler of the Obama agenda. Canvassing car-park picnickers before a college-football game in Statesboro, Mr Allen urged them to “put a small-business man in the United States Congress”.
Outrageously, he attacked Mr Barrow for repeatedly moving house–neglecting to mention that he was forced to by Republicans who redrew the map of his district to exclude him. At times Mr Allen sounds cross about Mr Barrow’s refusal to give up. Noting that he had met only Republicans grilling meat outside the game, he told supporters: “You are my kind of people,” before grumbling about his rival: “He’s the last Blue Dog Democrat, can you believe it?”
Other locals can believe it. True, some call Mr Barrow “deceitful”, accusing him of being both for and against such laws as Obamacare. But more call him “a good guy” whose defeat–if it comes–will be a verdict on national politics.
Bill Werkheiser, a Republican running for a state legislator’s seat near Reidsville, expresses heartfelt regret that, if Mr Barrow only voted “five times in 20” with the Democrats, that is enough to damn him in today’s hyper-partisan climate. He ventures that Mr Barrow “is so well-liked” that if he followed other Georgia Democrats and switched party, he would sweep all rivals aside.
Asked why he does not become a Republican, Mr Barrow offers well-polished swipes at both parties, adding that a change of partisan label “wouldn’t change the way I vote”. His sunny affability slips only twice–once when asked about the lynching his grandfather stopped. His great-great-uncle, a university professor, heard of trouble at the local stockade, he explains.
The professor took a copy of the state legal code for protection. Mr Barrow’s grandfather felt a gun might help, too. At that point the congressman (whose father, a judge, presided over school desegregation cases) begins to muse about the past, and moments of lawlessness shrouded in silence. Even Mark Twain feared to publish an essay on lynching in his lifetime, he notes grimly.
Another flash of passion is prompted by asking why he is the last white House Democrat in the Deep South. There are still plenty of moderate Georgians who vote “across racial lines”, Mr Barrow says. But such folk have been scattered across congressional districts drawn to maximise partisan purity. Both parties are guilty of gerrymandering, he concedes: it is like “an arms race”.
Mr Barrow has some cheery new ads in 2014. Snuggling a pet in one, he says he wouldn’t “wish Washington on a dog”. Another boasts of a clinic that he secured for veterans. In person he cannot quite conceal his dismay. Voters of the centre are being disenfranchised, he sorrows. He is right. This may not save him.
Click here to subscribe to The Economist
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.