GLENNVILLE, Ga. — At a law enforcement appreciation cookout last month, just within Georgia’s 12th District line, Democratic Rep. John Barrow back-slapped with the best of them as he made his way through a Republican-heavy crowd.
Barrow better be comfortable among GOP faithful, because his district is filled with them. After opting against a Senate bid last year, Barrow, a regular top target of national Republicans, is awaiting the conclusion of a GOP primary filled with candidates sure they should be able to pick off a district that President Barack Obama lost by 12 points in 2012.
And the incumbent is unlikely to find out his Republican opponent on Tuesday — two from the five-candidate primary field are expected to be forced into a July runoff, with no candidate likely to surpass the 50 percent threshold needed to win the nomination outright. This is the only district in the state that has the chance to flip party control.
In a mid-April interview outside a pond house with more than 1,000 potential voters filling the sprawling lawn and munching on barbecue, CQ Roll Call asked Barrow if a Democrat could win a Senate race in Georgia. His answer delved into his own race and explained how he's held on for five terms in such a challenging district.
"If you reflect the kind of values that our parents did and are prepared to stand up for those kinds of issues, and vote for what’s in the best interests of the state and the district you represent," Barrow said, "there’s no reason why someone can’t win no matter what brand that they run under." In an odd coincidence, the leading Republican contenders have faced news reports in recent weeks detailing pocked personal or business finances. Barrow, who has deftly positioned himself for survival in the GOP-leaning district, could use such charges against any of them down the line.
Businessman Eugene Yu and former Capitol Hill aide John Stone both have filed for bankruptcy in the past, and state Rep. Delvis Dutton has $23,000 in unpaid property taxes , according to reports by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Augusta Chronicle.
Tax liens obtained by CQ Roll Call show that construction company owner Rick Allen, the front-runner in the primary's final days, has had state and federal liens on multiple businesses. Augusta Masonry Inc. had a $68,000 federal tax lien in 2005, it was released in 2008. Allen's campaign says the lien was an error and was dismissed.
These issues — which have seen ample media coverage from the state’s largest newspaper — give Barrow and the outside groups likely to support him ammunition for the fall.
"He still has to work, but they have their own challenges,” Georgia Democratic consultant Tim Alborg said of the Republican field. "And it will definitely head to a runoff that goes until July 22, so that's another two months that they’re going to have to sling mud at each other.”
Last cycle, Barrow managed to outpace Obama by 10 points, winning with 54 percent of the vote. In 2010, which saw the biggest Republican wave since 1994, Barrow defeated an underfunded tea party Republican by a 13-point margin.
Unlike last cycle, when the 12th District was the only competitive federal race in Georgia, Barrow will have some top-of-the-ticket distractions from competitive gubernatorial and Senate races capable of sucking up much of the media bandwidth.
"There’s a time and place for politicking, maybe later in the summer will be the time for that," Barrow said in the interview last month, as several Senate candidates worked the crowd . "Right now, I’m just doing the job I was elected to do."
Still, Barrow knows he's in a tough race. He recently co-sponsored a bill to require members of Congress to fly coach. The other Democrat on the bipartisan bill, Rep. Raul Ruiz of California, also represents a competitive district.
While his eventual GOP opponent is likely headed for an expensive nine-week runoff, Barrow can continue to build on his $1.5 million campaign stockpile. The rest of the candidates are struggling to raise funds: Allen, who has the ability to self-fund his campaign, reported $191,000 in the bank as of April 30; Yu had $89,000 in cash on hand as of that date; and Dutton had $65,000.
Georgia Republicans concede Barrow is a tough opponent. But after being drawn into a more Republican district in 2011, their hope is that a strong year for the GOP nationally could prove too much for him.
“I think it’s an uphill battle — Barrow is smart," one unaffiliated Georgia Republican said. "We have maybe a 25 percent shot, which is probably the best shot we’ve had at Barrow in a while. ... All it takes is a wave election and somebody like John Barrow is in trouble."