STATESBORO, GEORGIA: At the annual fundraising gala for Bulloch County Democrats, one orator after another roused the crowd with criticism of President Donald Trump and tributes to the most diverse, liberal ticket the Georgia Democratic Party has ever assembled for a statewide election.
“We’re going to make history,” proclaimed Janice Laws, a Jamaican immigrant and black woman whose candidacy for state insurance commissioner might draw more notice if it weren’t overshadowed by Stacey Abrams’ bid to become the first black female governor in American history.
Former state NAACP leader Francys Johnson, the local congressional candidate, demanded “moral clarity” in opposition to Trump’s treatment of “poor people and immigrants and people of color.”
But John Barrow, the last Democrat to hold the House seat Johnson seeks, struck a different tone as he talked about why he entered politics.
“I thought there was a need for a little bipartisanship … some need for moderation,” recalled Barrow. Now running for Georgia secretary of state, Barrow told his fellow Democrats he values the “common-sense politics of compromise” over “the politics of confrontation.”
While Abrams runs as an unabashed liberal and gains national attention for her historic potential, Barrow’s campaign is notable for a different reason. He’s the most prominent white man running as a Democrat in Georgia this year, navigating the politics of a state undergoing rapid demographic shifts and a party that is putting a premium on gender and racial diversity. The 62-year-old Barrow’s electoral fortunes could offer clues for how voters might receive potential White House hopefuls like former Vice President Joe Biden, former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Govs. Jay Inslee of Washington and Steve Bullock of Montana.
Barrow is an increasingly rare figure in Deep South Democratic politics, where many white men of his generation became Republicans over the past two decades. Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation are African-American.
For his part, Barrow sees himself as part of Democrats’ diversity, arguing the party is refashioning itself as a big tent, including philosophically.
“What I’m trying to remind folks is there was a time when the parties were more diverse, and that was good for them,” Barrow said in an interview. “The only hope for our country is for both of these parties to be healed from within.”
Abrams, meanwhile, welcomes Barrow even if their politics and path to victory don’t always overlap.
“Every candidate on the Democratic ticket holds strong to their core values and seeks to lift up every Georgian,” she said.
Barrow is not openly critical of his fellow Democrats, including Abrams, noting she defined her tenure as minority leader in the state legislature by striking big-ticket compromises with Republicans. “That’s a high mark in her favor,” Barrow said, “but we all have to earn our stripes every day on that score, and I’ve done it more days, year in and year out, than anybody else on the statewide ticket on either side.”
He eagerly applies his trademark approach to the hottest topic in his otherwise low-profile race: how the secretary of state manages elections.
That issue has sharply defined the closing weeks of the governor’s race pitting Abrams against Republican Brian Kemp, the current secretary of state. Democrats and civil rights groups accuse Kemp’s office of nefariously holding up tens of thousands of new voter registrations. Kemp insists that he’s following the law and that any of those would-be voters can cast ballots as long as they produce valid identification like any other Georgian.
Barrow has largely kept to his script.
He notes the broader contours of the debate: Republicans arguing for preventing voter fraud while Democrats accuse them of trying to suppress votes. “There are legitimate concerns on both sides,” he told The Associated Press. “We ought to be able to make it easier to vote without making it easier for someone to cheat.”
At the south Georgia party gathering, Barrow emphasized ballot access. “A part of election integrity is protecting the right to vote,” he said, taking a few implicit digs at Kemp.
At a VFW hall a few days later in the Republican-leaning suburbs of Atlanta, Barrow underscored his push for scanned paper ballots statewide in lieu of touch-screen machines that leave no paper trail. At that venue, he made no mention of Kemp or of his own Republican opponent, state Rep. Brad Raffensperger.
The same kind of high-wire routine defined Barrow’s 10 years on Capitol Hill. It’s a tenure that began in 2004, after a stint as a local elected official in Athens. Barrow defeated an incumbent GOP Republican even as President George W. Bush was re-elected, and Barrow lasted five terms through two moves — GOP lawmakers redrew his district boundaries — and multiple tough campaigns until he finally succumbed to the GOP’s midterm sweep in 2014.
Along the way, he was an early endorser of Barack Obama’s presidential bid and backed Nancy Pelosi for speaker. But he opposed Obama’s health care overhaul in 2010 and from that year forward cast a symbolic vote for his fellow Georgian, civil rights icon John Lewis, as speaker. He backed hate crimes legislation and allowing gay military service members to serve openly, but he opposed Democrats’ cap-and-trade tax plans to combat climate change.
He won endorsements from the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Rifle Association, featuring the latter group in a memorable 2012 ad in which he brandished firearms he said were family heirlooms.
“Long before I was born, my grandfather used this little Smith & Wesson here to stop a lynchin’,” the Harvard Law graduate said, later concluding: “These are my guns now, and ain’t nobody gone take ’em away.”
He ran almost 10 points ahead of Obama in the district in 2012, but managed just 45 percent of the vote two years later.
As he tries for a comeback, party liberals have embraced Barrow as he charts a middle course.
“You always gave me a call,” Johnson, the former NAACP chief and House hopeful, told Barrow at the Bulloch County dinner. “You explained the tough votes. We knew where your values always were.”
Barrow defeated two more liberal candidates — both minorities — in the primary. Now he hopes to benefit from Abrams attracting voters who don’t usually participate in midterms but are enthusiastic about her campaign, betting they’ll back down-ballot Democrats like himself. He also hopes to pick up votes from former constituents who might back Kemp over Abrams.
That leaves open the possibility that Barrow could run ahead of Abrams and win a tight race while she and other Democrats are on the losing end of narrow margins, a scenario that would leave Barrow as the state’s highest-ranking Democrat.
After all, Barrow notes that Republicans’ repeated redistricting efforts mean he’s already represented about one-third of the state’s population and proved he can get split-ticket votes.
But, he insists, “There’s no strategy other than running as what I am.”
Note: The reporter is not related to John Barrow.
Follow Bill Barrow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP
This story corrects the length of Barrow’s tenure in Congress from 12 years to 10 years.