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John Barrow is a relic.
The Georgia Democrat is a backslapping, good old boy who bucks his party. He is a wily politico who has survived two Republican-led gerrymanders of his district, and he won re-election by more than 7 points in 2012 despite being a top GOP target with millions of dollars spent against him. He is a Democrat who has introduced balanced-budget amendment legislation and shows up in ads with guns and a National Rifle Association endorsement.
It’s Barrow’s unique profile that makes him likely the only candidate who could put the Peach State’s open Senate seat into play next year. That means he has a big decision to make. Does he gamble on a statewide bid in which he would be the decided underdog? Or does he stay in a district where he will continue to be a top GOP target every two years?
One of the only other Democrats mentioned as a serious potential candidate for the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss is Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a pro-business African-American with a growing national profile. But he told MSNBC on Monday that he is “going to keep being mayor.” He’s set to cruise to a second term in November, and beginning a Senate campaign immediately thereafter could prove daunting.
That leaves Barrow as Democrats’ best shot of picking up the seat. The numbers tell part of the reason. Georgia is a Republican state that voted only 45.5 percent for President Barack Obama in November. But based on 2012 presidential results, Barrow won a district more Republican than the state as a whole. His 12th District constituents elected him with 54 percent of the vote, while Obama took only about 44 percent in the district.
Barrow has left open the possibility of a run, but insiders said it would take a lot of assurances for him to pull the trigger on a statewide bid, including a clear primary field.
In his Rayburn office recently, Barrow sat with his right foot propped on a worn wooden table and talked through his legislative priorities: a clean balanced-budget amendment, “no budget, no pay,” and redistricting reform, which is an issue particularly close to his heart.
“Independents got no place to go in this Congress. They’ve all been drawn off the map, and some independents have been drawn out of the chamber,” he said.
The Georgian may be an independent in spirit, but he’s a member of the Democratic Party and that means he’s a perpetual target of the GOP.
“Ever since I was one of just two [House] Democrats to beat a Republican anywhere in the country in 2004, they’ve had that bull’s-eye on my back,” he said. “It don’t make any difference in terms of how I do the job.”
Republicans are already gearing up to take him on again. One plugged-in Georgia GOP operative said 2012 candidates Rick W. Allen and Wright McLeod are pondering bids. Another name floated by Republican insiders is state Sen. Tommie Williams. Deke Copenhaver, the mayor of Augusta whose name has been floated, told CQ Roll Call he has no interest in a run for Congress. If Barrow does mount a Senate bid, Democrats are almost certain to lose his House seat.
There’s no questions that Barrow has been a successful politician: He’s still in office. But there’s a certain quixotic feel to many of his legislative efforts. Even he admits that the road is long for his priorities. “Regrettably, most of the important things won’t be accomplished anytime soon, but that’s no reason to stop trying,” he said. “Remember ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’? The only causes worth fighting for are the lost causes.”
Throughout a 30-minute interview, he again and again emphasized the need for the federal government to be more fiscally responsible. He said he believes the greatest threat to the next generation’s future is the national debt.
“My great-great-great grandmother said, ‘Use it up, wear it out, make do or do without,’” he said in his folksy Georgia accent. “I think the federal government could use a little of that.”
Passed down through the generations, Barrow explained he learned the phrase — the philosophy — when he “was knee-high to a grasshopper.”
Then, in a twangy staccato, he repeated the pearl of wisdom for effect: “Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without.”