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SYLVESTER, Ga. — For most of Saturday’s Peter Pan Peanut Butter Parade, state Rep. Mike Keown (R) was playing second fiddle to the 3-, 4- and 5-year-old “mini tumblers” of Southern Pride Cheer, who marched and rode just ahead of him during the annual event at the Georgia Peanut Festival.
Keown’s opponent, nine-term Rep. Sanford Bishop, had no such competition for attention. The Democrat had a prime spot near the front of the parade.
Although the crowd seemed more interested in Southern Pride’s adorable cheer routine, the optimistic state legislator made the most of his opportunity. Keown and his wife worked both sides of the street handing out cards, shaking hands and asking voters for their support.
The scene was emblematic of the political battle taking place in southwest Georgia’s 2nd district.
The Keown-Bishop matchup is being overshadowed on the national level by the highly competitive race next door in Democratic Rep. Jim Marshall’s 8th district, which has drawn the interest of national media and several powerful third-party organizations.
GOP insiders say that if Republicans win the House by a slim margin next month, they will take down Marshall in the process. But picking off the well-established Bishop — who hasn’t faced any real opposition in a decade — probably won’t happen unless a larger GOP wave develops on Election Day.
Still, Keown is doing his best to take advantage of a favorable Republican environment and voters’ sour mood.
He also believes he can outwork Bishop.
About 15 minutes after watching Bishop drive by, waving from the back of a Chevy Silverado, an elderly woman on the parade route was excited to shake Keown’s hand.
“I think Sanford thinks he’s unbeatable, and maybe his demeanor in the parade showed that,” said the woman, who declined to give her name. “It was great to see Mike Keown out shaking hands and meeting the people.”
Bishop’s advantages are clear when the race is broken down by all the usual political measurements.
The district was made more Democratic after a Republican-led redistricting plan in 2005. It gave President Barack Obama 54 percent of the vote in 2008.
After 18 years in Congress, Bishop is well-known and well-established, and he holds an influential spot on the powerful Appropriations Committee, where he makes sure to look out for the farming and military interests that make up a large part of the district’s economy.
Bishop also knows how to use his influence to raise big money. At the end of September, he held a more than 2-to-1 cash-on-hand advantage over Keown. National Democrats have shelled out nearly three times what Republicans have spent on the race, according to the latest independent expenditure reports.
But Keown believes that there has been a fundamental change over the past two years in what voters want from their Representative. The Baptist minister and former prison chaplain explained that change through Biblical parable.
“I liken all that to the story about the prodigal son in scripture ... where he asks for all those things he thought was gonna make him free,” Keown said. “And then the prodigal son finds out that he’s mired in the pig pen and all those things he thought was going to make him free, all the change he asked for, he had become enslaved by.”
Keown said Bishop’s votes for the health care bill, the stimulus program and the cap-and-trade bill have put him on the wrong side of an electorate that has woken up to the error of electing Bishop and President Barack Obama.
“I think a lot of the change that we’ve asked for, we’ve realized now that this is not the change we want. We find ourselves mired in a pig pen and are being enslaved by that very change,” he said.
Barney Knighton of Albany is one former Bishop supporter who said he will be pulling the lever for Keown this year.
Knighton said he thinks Bishop stopped listening to the people a long time ago, but the Congressman’s vote for the health care bill was the final straw.
“I think you’re going to see a lot more voters this time,” Knighton said. “I think you’re going to see people break party lines.”
Turning Out the Base
After wishing Keown luck outside a high school football game in Bainbridge on Friday night, Billy Gossett told Keown to keep the card that he tried to put in his hand. Keown already had his vote.
But Gossett also didn’t seem overly confident that Keown could upset Bishop.
“Sanford Bishop is ingrained. He’s got a lot of farmers backing him, and he’s got all the black vote,” Gossett said.
The importance of African-Americans, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic, is hard to understate when it comes to Bishop’s re-election. The 2nd district is just less than half black, but in recent years, the percentage of black voters who come out on Election Day has varied greatly. In 2006, black turnout was 37 percent. In 2008, when Obama was on the ballot, black turnout surged to 48 percent.
Both Keown’s and Bishop’s pollsters are expecting black voters to come out in higher numbers this year than they did in 2006, but how much higher is the question.
Henry Jackson, 81, is a black Air Force veteran who sat behind Bishop during a Sept. 11, 2001, memorial in Albany last week, where firefighters raised a massive American flag that will fly over the World Trade Center site next year. Jackson said he thinks black voters are motived this fall because of Bishop and Obama, for whom the midterm elections will be seen as a referendum on his first two years as president.
“If they have any sense, they will vote,” Jackson said of black voters.
‘$100 Million-A-Year Industry’
When asked what he needs to do in the final weeks before Election Day, Bishop said the strategy is fairly simple.
“A campaign is a time where you give account for your stewardship,” Bishop said. Voters “will look to see who has a record of delivering for them.”
Bishop’s ability to bring tax dollars back to the 2nd district is something that’s hard to argue.
Albany City Commissioner Roger Marietta, who was also at the Albany flag raising, described Bishop as “a $100 million-a-year industry” for southwest Georgia.
“The average person believes that we benefit from having an entrenched Congressman who has a seat on the Appropriations Committee,” Marietta said.
And while Keown has worked to tie Bishop to his more controversial party leaders, such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the Congressman has returned the favor by hitting Keown for accepting money and campaign support from national GOP leaders such as House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio), who is holding a fundraiser for Keown this week.
“For him to embrace Boehner, who also wants to privatize Social Security, just underscores the fact that they want to take away from my seniors and those who are disabled and the children who depend on that social safety net that Social Security provides,” Bishop said.
In the final days of the campaign, one issue that continues to haunt Bishop is a controversy involving the awarding of several scholarships from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, which he is a part of, to his family members.
The story made national headlines and has helped Keown gain attention and fundraising help at a crucial time.
Bishop has tried to put the issue behind him. He has said he was not involved in awarding the scholarship money, and he repaid the money that went to his family members.
When asked about it again last week, Bishop said his campaign had already responded to the story and that there was nothing else to say.
“I think he’d be a lot further ahead if [the scholarship story] wasn’t an issue,” said Claven Williams, who attended Saturday’s festival in Sylvester. “Is he a saint? No. ... Sanford Bishop is a politician. But you have to look at the lesser of two evils. I know Sanford. He’s been around a while, he’s delivered. And if you can do that, a lot of things can be forgiven.”