How Republicans Caught Their White Whale: John Barrow
This is the first in a five-part series examining the campaigns behind the cycle’s most fascinating races.
Republican Rick Allen and his team gathered around a table at the Hilton Garden Inn in Augusta, Ga., Tuesday night, waiting for results to come in. They weren’t optimistic.
Allen faced the ultimate political survivor, Rep. John Barrow, the sole remaining white Democrat in the Deep South.
Just before Election Day, Democrats’ polling showed Barrow consistently ahead. Allen’s campaign didn’t have internals to counter; the last time they polled the race was more than a month ago.
Even more discouraging, Barrow was known for squeaking out wins, even as GOP presidential candidates carried the 12th District by double-digits. Republicans had tried to oust Barrow before, and many operatives were convinced he would escape their grasp again.
But as soon as the early returns trickled in, it was clear: Republicans had finally nabbed their white whale. Barrow not only lost — he was defeated by a stunning 10-point margin.
The road to Augusta is paved with Republicans who had lost to Barrow.
In 2012, Barrow defeated Republican Lee Anderson, who quickly became one of the GOP’s most-reviled candidates of the cycle in the process. Allen lost a primary to Anderson by a few hundred votes that same year.
Peach State GOP operatives said the National Republican Congressional Committee recruited state Rep. Delvis Dutton into the race.
Dutton was a fresh face, and he came from the rural part of the district. Republicans believed they could run up the score in that area to overcome Barrow’s lead in the Democratic stronghold of Richmond County.
Multiple Republican operatives said Annie Kelly, the head of the NRCC’s program targeting Blue Dog Democrats, oversaw Dutton’s February campaign launch, spending a few days in the district readying his announcement.
NRCC spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said the committee did not recruit Dutton, and said the NRCC helps any candidates who ask for advice.
But GOP operatives said the move frustrated Georgia Republicans, including Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, the deputy chairman of the NRCC.
With a Republican primary field swelling to five, it seemed nearly impossible for any candidate to overcome the 50 percent threshold necessary to avoid a runoff in the May 20 primary. A runoff would have dragged the primary on for another costly nine weeks — and would have kept Republicans focused on attacking each another instead of Barrow.
“We had some disagreements early on with respect to the race in GA-12,” Westmoreland said in a statement last week to CQ Roll Call, declining to elaborate further. “We worked through those disagreements and at the end of the day we were all on the same page. We are thrilled with Rick Allen’s victory and we look forward to welcoming him in January as a valuable member of our caucus.”
The Money Chase
On Aug. 12, Georgia’s 12th District was one of the first districts where the NRCC started airing ads. The committee kept spending there for the rest of the cycle, putting more than $2.5 million on television and radio ads — taking pains for the spots to have better production value and targeted messaging.
Speaker John A. Boehner, Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan and NRCC Chairman Greg Walden made trips to the district to help Allen raise cash.
“It’s no secret that John Barrow has been the NRCC’s No. 1 target for cycle after cycle, and 2014 was no exception,” Scarpinato said. “That’s why the NRCC went up on TV in this district before any other in the country, and devoted staff and resources to winning. By working as a team with Rick Allen and his campaign, we were finally able to knock Barrow down.”
But Allen had trouble raising money. Republicans felt burned by previous Barrow challengers, and GOP operatives said donors were reluctant to open their wallets again.
In 2012, when Republicans redrew the district’s boundaries to be less favorable for Democrats, Barrow defeated his GOP opponent by a whopping 7-point margin. In 2010, a wave year for Republicans in which the GOP picked up 63 seats, Barrow won by a 13-point margin.
Barrow was stockpiling cash for his re-election. By June 30, Barrow’s war chest had grown to $1.9 million — a large sum of money to put behind his famously folksy ads.
Groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Rifle Association — which usually support Republicans — stuck by Barrow. The chamber spent $400,000 to support his re-election.
And when Allen’s campaign was strapped for cash, GOP operatives said Walden didn’t help his cause.
“I had multiple members of Congress telling me that Greg Walden was on a phone call with other members as late as two weeks ago going through the last-minute list of challengers that had the best opportunity to defeat Democrats and places to send money,” said Chip Lake, a longtime Georgia Republican operative. “Rick Allen was not on that list.”
Instead, Allen was forced to dip into his own deep pockets, dumping $900,000 of his own personal fortune into the race. It brought Republicans up to parity with the millions Barrow, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and House Majority PAC dumped onto the airwaves.
Allen’s team — including general consultant Jay Walker and partner Scott Rials, Pat McCarthy of DMM Media and campaign manager Lauren Swing — also capitalized on a key Barrow error.
In a fundraising letter Barrow sent in the 2012 campaign, Barrow admitted to voting with President Barack Obama 85 percent of the time. Anderson’s campaign never used it, but Allen’s team and the NRCC blasted it in ads across the district.
The result? Cracks in Barrow’s stronghold.
This cycle marked the first time Barrow would run in this tougher district in a midterm.
And with Obama’s approval at an all-time low, Allen’s team knew they had their panacea: tie a vote for Barrow to a vote for the president. Ironically, this was easier without the president on the ballot.
Without the ability to vote against Obama, Allen’s team made the case that the only way to send a message to the president was to fire a member of his party.
In a wave year that saw a net loss of at least 13 Democratic House seats, Barrow became that collateral damage.
“When you do have a wave, you see signs of it in the last few days,” said Steve Murphy, the man behind Barrow’s ads. “We were doing better in terms of John Barrow’s favorability — better than we’d ever done before. But it’s real simple: The election was completely nationalized to the voters in a fashion that made Barrow’s independence and job performance irrelevant to them.”
Not 10 minutes after news outlets declared a winner, Barrow called Allen to concede.
“I’ve been blessed to have a job that I truly love,” Barrow wrote Thursday in a message to supporters. “While I’m not sure what the future hold, the 12th District will always hold a special place with me.”