- Associated Press - Saturday, October 25, 2014

STATESBORO, Ga. (AP) - Touring his southeast Georgia farm in a pickup truck, Randy Branch gave a visiting congressman a crash course in agriculture as well as an earful about politics - namely how much he doesn’t like Democrats.

Branch’s guest, Rep. John Barrow, listened to his complaints about Washington and assured the farmer he too often disagrees with President Barack Obama. Never mind that Barrow is also a Democrat. The congressman left Appling County that day having won over a new supporter in Branch, who otherwise plans to vote a straight Republican ticket in the Nov. 4 elections.

“It’ll be the first time in a long time I voted for anybody with a ‘D’ next to his name,” said Branch, president of the Appling County Farm Bureau. “I told him I wouldn’t put a sign in my yard because I was afraid of getting my house egged.”

If Branch turns out to be his only Republican supporter, Barrow will soon be out of a job. Lawmakers redrew his 12th District seat after the last census to carve out much of Barrow’s Democratic base and replace it with a big swath of rural eastern Georgia that votes faithfully for GOP candidates. The district covers 19 eastern Georgia counties and includes the cities of Augusta, Statesboro, Vidalia and Dublin.

Barrow has proven stubbornly adaptable during his decade in Congress. He’s moved his home from Athens to Savannah and then to Augusta to stay within the shifting boundaries of his seat. When GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney won 55 percent of the vote in Barrow’s new Republican-leaning district in 2012, the Democratic congressman got re-elected by nearly the same margin. That means Barrow persuaded thousands of Romney supporters to cross party lines at the voting booth.

Can Barrow hang onto those crossover voters in the fall midterm election? His Republican opponent, Augusta construction company owner Rick Allen, has spent more than $1.5 million - nearly matching Barrow’s own spending as of Sept. 30. However, Barrow still had $1.5 million in the bank, compared to Allen’s $118,000 cash balance, heading into the race’s final stretch. Outside groups including the national Republican and Democratic parties have spent $5.2 million on attack ads trying to sway the outcome of the race.

“I think some people who voted for Barrow in the past will say we’ve had just about enough of where the Obama administration and the president’s party are trying to take this country,” said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., who has a big interest in the race as deputy chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “John has had plenty of opportunities, if he disagrees with the agenda of the Democratic Party, to switch parties.”

While Allen and the NRCC have been trying hard to pair Barrow with Obama, who’s unpopular in much of the district, Barrow has played up the nonpartisan, retail politics of helping constituents while rolling out campaign ads that routinely criticize his own party. In one TV spot, Barrow tells viewers “I’m taking on the Obama administration” to push for building the Keystone XL oil pipeline. In another, Barrow picks up a revolver while touting his endorsement by the National Rifle Association: “We all know how Washington Democrats look down on people who carry firearms, but I know better.”

“I’m going to continue to be independent and put the interests of Georgia above either party or both parties in Washington,” Barrow told the crowd during a recent debate in Statesboro.

Allen’s campaign has portrayed Barrow as more two-faced than independent, saying he’s another politician willing to tell voters whatever they want to hear. Last month Barrow got tripped up by his own balancing act. In a response ad to GOP attacks linking him with Obama, Barrow declared: “I don’t vote 85 percent of the time with anybody.” Republicans pounced, noting a fundraising letter Barrow sent in 2012 read: “I have supported the President and the Democratic leadership 85 percent of the time.”

Allen said ultimately Barrow’s 10 years in Washington, regardless of his party affiliation, should prove his undoing with voters this time. Allen has promised to limit himself to eight years in Congress.

“There is a huge anti-incumbent sentiment out there,” Allen said. “I’ve been to a football game at Georgia Southern where the only question I got asked was, ‘Are you an incumbent?’ I said no and they said, ‘You’ve got my vote.’”

On the other hand, Barrow’s clout as a congressman helped him win the support of Grovetown Mayor George James, who considers himself “a Republican more than anything else.”

James credits Barrow with helping city officials arrange a meeting with environmental regulators that led to Grovetown, a city of 12,000 west of Augusta, building a long delayed water treatment plant. And he said Barrow sends a staffer to City Hall about every two months to help constituents having problems with Social Security or other federal programs.

“If I just looked at his party, I wouldn’t vote for the man,” James said. “What I’m looking at is the individual and what he’s done.”

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