For the last several election cycles, Republican attempts to sack John Barrow, the last white Democrat from the Deep South in Congress, have had the feel of a snipe hunt.
A scrambling in the dark, accompanied by a great number of stubbed toes, with nothing to show but an empty burlap bag when the lights are turned on.
Republicans have made the 12th District as GOP-friendly as the numbers legally allow. They have shifted its center of gravity from Athens to Savannah to Augusta. Barrow, who now has a permanent account with Two Men And A Truck, has deftly sent his challengers home each time.
But Barrow’s campaigning prowess isn’t the sole factor. Republicans have had difficulty producing a quality candidate – without running a cash-draining gauntlet. A grueling 2012 primary and runoff produced Lee Anderson, an affable state lawmaker and farmer so deficient in oratorical skills that his handlers didn’t dare put him on a stage with Barrow.
The congressional district gave 55 percent of its vote to Mitt Romney. And 54 percent to Barrow.
Qualifying for the 12th District contest, along with hundreds of others, opens at the state Capitol on Monday. And history may be poised to repeat itself.
For the better part of a year, the Republican race for the 12th District has been a two-man affair between Augusta businessman Rick Allen, a self-funder, and former congressional staffer John Stone.
This was to be a neat package cleanly settled with a May 20 primary.
But Allen turned in a disappointing campaign finance report in January – showing a mere $78,311 raised over the last three months of 2013, and $100,000 in cash on hand.
Now the GOP field has blossomed.
Last week, Eugene Yu, a Korean-born former defense contractor from Augusta, dropped out of the Republican race for U.S. Senate – and into the close-to-home contest.
But the most interesting new face belongs to two-term state Rep. Delvis Dutton, R-Glennville, the young owner of a well-drilling company on the hard-right side of the House GOP caucus. His is the first signature on HB 100, a measure to prohibit the confiscation of firearms during a state of emergency. (The Augusta Chronicle this weekend has a piece on Dutton's past financial difficulties.)
We tried to catch up with Dutton over several days and were unsuccessful. But Joel McElhannon, a GOP consultant based in Athens, gave this assessment.
“He’s a presentable guy. He can talk farm -- I see the appeal of that. [But] Delvis has never been tested before, never been in a campaign -- a real campaign. This is a national profile, targeted, top-10 race,” he said.
What makes this unusual, McElhannon said, is that Dutton is the preferred candidate of the National Republican Congressional Committee – the multi-million dollar organization devoted to supporting U.S. House candidates.
“The NRCC basically got Delvis in the race. They’re running his campaign, ran his whole launch. They had a staff person on the ground in Georgia, coordinating his announcement,” the consultant said.
An NRCC-tested firm is doing his media and polling, McElhannon added.
Why would this be important? Because an NRCC-backed candidate would essentially amount to a declaration of no confidence in the rest of the GOP field.
We sent an email to the NRCC in Washington, and got a call back from political director Rob Simms – who served as Karen Handel’s chief of staff in Atlanta when she was secretary of state.
“The NRCC does not endorse or pick sides in Republican primary. Nor did we recruit Delvis Dutton,” Simms said. But he acknowledged having an NRCC staffer on site when Dutton announced his candidacy last month.
“Our job is to talk to and have relationships with the candidates who are running,” said Simms, adding that the NRCC has had similar contact with other GOP candidates in the 12th District contest.
We posed the same question to U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Coweta County, who is deputy chairman of the NRCC. Here’s the quote from Westmoreland that his staff emailed back:
"I’ve told (NRCC) staff that we need to stay out of that primary. I am convinced, with the field that we've got, that our nominee, whomever that may be, can beat John Barrow in November."
Westmoreland’s statement seems to imply that an intervention in the 12th District has occurred – or, at the very least, has been discussed. The congressman’s office declined to elaborate. (To be fair, Westmoreland was at a funeral on Friday.)
But it appears that, in addition to another expensive primary runoff, the GOP race for the 12th District also includes some upper-crust, closed-door dissension.
Sometime this week, the elusive Barrow will make his way to Atlanta, to re-up for his congressional seat. He will have his fingers crossed, hoping that another snipe hunt is about to begin.