Last White House Democratic Congressman in the Deep South Fights for Political Survival

Moni Basu, CNN, November 2, 2012

Here in the home of timber yards, BB-gun champs and DEET-defying gnats, John Barrow is fighting for survival.

He’s the last standing white Democrat from the Deep South in the U.S. House of Representatives, a remaining sliver of a party machine that once brokered power for the region’s establishment.

Barrow’s political death, if it comes on Election Day, would serve as a stark signal of the electoral realignment dividing Southern Democrats and Republicans along racial lines.

The ramifications are huge—not just in the South, but nationally—in determining the future of both parties, say political observers and historians who are closely watching Barrow’s uphill battle.

If Barrow loses, every Democratic congressman from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia will be black. Every Republican will be white, save Rep. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who was elected in 2010 with Tea Party backing.

Barrow finds himself working hard for votes in Georgia towns swept by a tide of Republican Red—towns like Baxley, where, among many folks, saying “Democrat” is like taking the devil’s name.

Barrow has attended the “Redneck Games” in Dublin and recently hosted a barbecue dinner at the American Legion Altamaha Post 26, where he bought five raffle tickets for a Mossberg Model 500A 12-gauge shotgun.

He might belong to the party of his daddy and his granddaddy, but his public persona stands far removed from Washington’s Democratic leadership.

“A Democratic label is a killer in that district,” says Emory University political scientist Merle Black, an authority on Southern politics. “The Democratic Party across the Deep South is in real trouble with white voters.”

To make matters tougher, the GOP-controlled Georgia legislature redrew the boundaries for Barrow’s 12th District following the 2010 census, making his constituency even redder.

Barrow knows he can’t win without a chunk of conservative Republicans crossing over.

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Barrow’s campaign sent out more than 500 invitations for an early evening dinner at a rented event space in Douglas called The Atrium. {snip}

About 30 people show up for pulled pork barbecue and green beans just as dark clouds begin to scatter in the sky. Many are African-Americans who make up Barrow’s core support in rural Georgia.

They don’t care much for the fact that Barrow voted against the president’s Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. Or that he voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with congressional subpoenas related to the deadly Operation Fast and Furious scandal.

They don’t think Barrow ought to be distancing himself from the president the way they thought he did by not attending the Democratic National Convention.

If you’re going to be a Democrat, then be a Democrat, says Johnny Roper, who served on the Douglas city commission for 27 years.

“We really want someone more devoted,” he says as caterers begin to serve the meal.

But, he asks, what’s the choice? There’s a big difference between Barrow and his Republican opponent, who Roper says is “no good for poor folks.”

But minority votes like Roper’s have been diluted in Barrow’s newly drawn district.

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Georgia Republicans say the lines were redrawn to reflect the state’s population changes.

But civil rights groups say Republicans are trying to further empower themselves by isolating black voters in majority-minority districts represented mostly by black Democrats.

“They are using race,” says Anita Earls, a civil rights lawyer and executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

“The Republican strategy is to try to make the Democratic Party a party of black people,” she says.

That will make it more difficult for Democrats to win races in the near future, Earls says, but changing U.S. demographics—in which minority populations are growing at faster rates than whites—means that eventually that strategy will be doomed.

“They don’t have a long-term formula for success,” Earls says. “Maybe, they get a decade.”

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