John Barrow is holding court at a blue-clothed table in one of the reddest parts of the state.
There are only about two dozen people gathered at this empty storefront in Cumming, and a few of them are teens tapping on their smartphones. But the former congressman is unfazed.
“I’m the first. I’m the last. I’m the most,” he tells the group. The first Democrat to defeat an incumbent Republican in his former east Georgia district. The last white Democrat in the U.S. House from the Deep South. And, his new favorite phrase, the “most gerrymandered member of Congress ever.”
Three years after he was ousted from the House by Republican Rick Allen, Barrow is running for secretary of state. And the race for the statewide office, which oversees elections and administers business licenses, could wind up as one of the most competitive races on a Georgia 2018 ballot with few other marquee contests.
At the heart of his campaign is winning over conservatives in places such as Cumming, the seat of a county Donald Trump won in last year’s presidential election by nearly 50 percentage points, with a war on gerrymandered districts and a pledge to stay neutral on the bread-and-butter duties of the office.
The position is a vaunted one despite its no-frills roots. Five of the past six secretaries of state — including current officeholder Brian Kemp — ran for governor. The lone holdout, Max Cleland, instead served a term in the U.S. Senate.
And next year’s contest is no different: A crop of ambitious politicians from both sides of the aisle have signed up to run. But none unnerves conservatives so much as Barrow, who has been a top GOP target since he defeated Republican U.S. Rep. Max Burns in 2004.
“He’s a dangerous opponent, and anyone who underestimates him is making a serious mistake,” said state Sen. Josh McKoon, one of the GOP candidates for the seat. “He was able to win truly competitive House races, and that’s why we can’t sleepwalk through this.”
‘My guns now’
Barrow tells campaign trail crowds that his childhood is a blend of two stories: “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Remember the Titans.” The former because he sees his father, an Athens judge who helped advance civil rights, as a version of Atticus Finch. The latter because he was part of the class that integrated his Athens high school.
And he’s chatty to the point of being almost bubbly. At one point, he stops himself in midsentence with an admission: “I feel like the little girl at the spelling bee who got the word banana. B-a-n-a-n-a-n-a-n-a — I know how to spell it, but I just don’t know when to stop.”
That sort of effervescence belies the partisan warfare that was waged over his seat for a decade. In Congress, the Harvard-trained attorney carved out a centrist voting record that frequently crossed his party’s leaders.
He twice voted against Nancy Pelosi as House speaker, bucked his party on the 2010 health care law and skipped the 2012 Democratic National Convention. In campaign ads, he underplayed his Democratic bona fides and boasted of his endorsement from the National Rifle Association.
“These are my guns now,” he said in one TV spot, brandishing his father’s rifle, “and ain’t nobody going to take them away.”
His precarious political position was stuff of legend in Washington. Redrawn lines forced Barrow to move from Athens to Savannah to Augusta during his five-term tenure, and he managed to win by campaigning as an independent Democrat not afraid to defy his party.
That run ended in 2014 when Allen and GOP groups relentlessly tied him to then-President Barack Obama, who was deeply unpopular in the east Georgia territory. Barrow was trounced, losing by nearly 10 points.
Ask him the lesson learned from that defeat and he’ll inevitably invoke his campaign against gerrymandering, which he sees as a flat-out evil that robs citizens of their fair shake. He wants the courts to redraw congressional lines “so that moderate voters have as much say as partisan voters.”
“Gerrymandering is probably our No. 1 threat. It’s highly destructive to draw ourselves into districts where the general election is preordained,” he said. “And I’m the poster child for that. We should let the voters decide.”
The four Republicans who have lined up for the post invariably remind him that the Legislature — and not the secretary of state — will have the final say on congressional lines.
“Gerrymandering is on people’s minds, but there’s nothing that office can do about it,” said state Rep. Buzz Brockway, a Lawrenceville Republican gunning for the seat. “It’s another promise a politician makes on the campaign trail that he can’t deliver on.”
Many Democrats, meanwhile, are quietly spoiling for a matchup against McKoon, a polarizing figure who has had contentious battles within his own party over ethics overhauls and “religious liberty” legislation.
And McKoon welcomes that fight, saying his popularity with the party’s grass-roots base and history in the Legislature make him best to go “toe to toe” with Barrow. Others Republicans are eager to back anyone — former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle and state Rep. Brad Raffensperger are also in the race — who can stop Barrow in his tracks.
“Having a career politician with no core values or beliefs in charge of our elections process would be a disaster for the state of Georgia,” said Jeremy Brand, a Republican operative whose firm has long tangled with Barrow. “Republicans should rally together to permanently retire him from politics.”
Barrow must first persuade his own party to back him, and the May primary is set to pit competing notions of electability and ideological purity against each other.
One of his two Democratic opponents, state Rep. Dee Dawkins-Haigler, said she’s baffled that some Democratic leaders are supporting a candidate “who has a track record of voting against the best interests” of his party because he’s a high-profile contender and proven fundraiser.
“In times like these, we need elected officials who won’t waver,” she said. “If my political ideology didn’t align with the Democratic Party, I would switch parties and run as a Republican. This just might be something Mr. Barrow should consider.”
The other Democrat in the race, former Rockdale Tax Commissioner R.J. Hadley, said his opponent doesn’t have the tech savvy to run the office.
“I understand Congressman Barrow’s focus on anti-gerrymandering as it cost him his longtime job in Washington,” said Hadley, who touts his experience in technology management. “Unfortunately, it has little to do with the real work of secretary of state.”
For Barrow, the attacks are much like the barbs he faced from both sides of the aisle during his House runs. He sees them as a sign he’s hitting the right bipartisan notes.
“It’s a price we’ve got to pay if we’re going to come together and make progress in a political system that demands it,” Barrow said. “Democrats who can’t compromise are as much of a problem as Republicans who can’t.”
Partisans seem willing to hear him out. Kim Copeland, a die-hard Democrat who drove about 20 miles from Gainesville to hear Barrow speak, said the Trump era calls for “politicians who can bring both sides together.”
Latresha Jackson struck a similar tone. She moved to Forsyth County a few years ago from the heavily Democratic town of Stone Mountain and has reshaped her political views. She calls herself a “liberal but a realist.”
“We can’t live in a fairy tale world,” she said. “If we want to find some kind of common ground, we need to meet in the middle. And while it’s great that there are more progressives, sometimes you just need to get the job done.”