Barrow's defeat was built into Georgia congressional map that made other seats safe



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SAVANNAH, Georgia — Democratic Rep. John Barrow had a decade in Congress to establish himself as an independent voice and he raised $3.1 million to defend his eastern Georgia seat.

The outcome of his race Tuesday wasn't even close. Republican businessman Rick Allen defeated the Augusta Democrat with a commanding 55 percent of the vote. Don't be surprised if several more election cycles pass before Georgians see that kind of drama again in a congressional election.

All 14 U.S. House districts in Georgia were up for grabs in the Tuesday midterm elections. But the only truly competitive race was between Barrow and Allen in the 12th District, which covered 19 east Georgia counties and includes the cities of Augusta, Statesboro, Vidalia and Dublin.

Barrow was the last white, Democratic congressman from the Deep South states of Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina, and he had been a top target of the national Republican Party since winning his first election in 2004. The key to Barrow's defeat goes back to the last time Georgia's congressional map was redrawn in 2011. Lawmakers retooled Barrow's seat to favor Republicans, while Georgia's remaining congressmen were drawn into new districts that essentially rendered them safe by lumping together voters who typically favor one political party over the other in substantial numbers.

"Whether there's a name on the ballot or not, the districts are drawn in a way that you don't really have a choice," said William Perry, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Georgia. "We're really in a system where the voters don't pick the elected officials, but the officials pick the voters."

Lopsided congressional elections were apparent Tuesday across Georgia. Only two contenders — Allen and Democratic Rep. Sanford Bishop of Columbus — won with less than 60 percent of the vote. Freshman GOP Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville crushed his Democratic opponent by winning 80 percent of the vote.

Six incumbent congressmen coasted to re-election unopposed, as did one newcomer. Democrats didn't even contest Republican Barry Loudermilk of Cassville for the open seat of departing GOP Rep. Phil Gingrey of Marietta. And Republicans Buddy Carter of Pooler and Jody Hice of Monroe easily dispatched Democratic opponents to win two other open House seats.

As for the seat Barrow lost to Allen, "I think it'll stay Republican for a while," said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, who had a big interest in the race as deputy chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "These districts, they're drawn to where they're not so very competitive in a general election, which makes them more competitive in a primary."

Barrow beat the odds in 2012 by persuading thousands of conservative voters to cross party lines and support him. Mitt Romney carried the district in the presidential race by 55 percent, and Barrow won re-election by nearly the same margin. He doubled down this year on the same approach — emphasizing constituent service over Washington politics, openly criticizing President Barack Obama in TV ads and touting his endorsement by conservative groups such as the National Rifle Association.

But Barrow's outreach to conservatives may have undermined Democrats' enthusiasm.

"John's message was a little mixed," said Lowell Greenbaum, Democratic Party chairman for Richmond County. "He absolutely distanced himself from the president, as a lot of them did across the country. I think that was a mistake."

Barrow still carried Richmond County, the district's Democratic base, by 65 percent. But he only won three of the district's 19 counties — compared to nine counties Barrow carried in 2012.

Barrow spent about $3 million on the race, $1 million more than Allen. But outside groups invested $7.3 million on attack ads, including NRCC commercials that repeatedly linked Barrow with Obama to undercut the congressman's bipartisan message.

"All you needed was somebody who could at least not let him drown you out and post up the truth and expose him," Allen said late Tuesday after Barrow conceded. "We knew that if we made it a fair fight, we would prevail."

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