Senate race without Barrow bodes ill for Democrats

The conservative congressman was the best–perhaps only–hope the party had for winning seat
Congressman John Barrow

U.S. Rep. John Barrow’s announcement this week that he won’t run for the retiring Saxby Chambliss’ Senate seat is seen pretty much everywhere as an enormous setback for Georgia Democrats.

Actually, “setback” is the wrong word, since it implies a diminution of power or reversal of fortune. And, with no statewide elected officials in their camp, super-minorities in both the state House and Senate for the foreseeable future, and no visible political momentum, Democrats in Georgia cannot, technically speaking, be laid any lower than they already are.

Instead, consider it a lost opportunity, and a huge one at that. In Barrow–the only Deep South white Democrat left in Congress–the party had its clearest shot at recovering–or at least being competitive for–the soon-to-be-open Senate seat. Without Barrow, the Dems will need a perfect storm of semi-miraculous events to have any hope of winning.

Before this week’s body blow, the Democratic strategists I’ve talked to had suggested three types of candidate who’ve got a chance of winning, in declining order of preference: Barrow; a largely untested, but bright young politician or political legacy (or, ideally, a politician who’s also a political legacy); or a charismatic rich person able to self-fund his or her own campaign, an unlikely scenario that we’ll call deus ex millionaire.

Despite the fact that Democrats have largely been routed in Georgia politics, Barrow still looked good in a match-up against a GOP congressman to be named later. He’d already survived two redistrictings by moving from Athens to Savannah to Augusta, giving him a larger constituent base than any potential Republican opponent. And not only is he the most conservative major Democratic office-holder in Georgia, but arguably the most conservative Democrat in Congress, with his vote against Obama Care and his vocal support for gun rights. That might not energize many liberal voters, but then liberals don’t tend to win statewide elections in Georgia.

And if you assume that flaky, right-fringe, anti-evolutionist Rep. Paul Broun wins the GOP nomination next year, then Broun’s chances of succeeding Saxby jumped somewhere north of 50/50.

With Barrow out of the running, any reasonable Democrat hopes would assume a Broun primary victory as a necessary starting point. In other words, the seat is again the Republicans’ to lose.

So, what now? Well, attention has already turned to Michelle Nunn, daughter of popular former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn. The younger Nunn is well-respected in the non-profit world and among movers and shakers as the energetic founder of HandsOn Atlanta and CEO of Points of Light, a national volunteer organization. Just after Barrow dropped his bombshell, someone leaked a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee poll to Politico in which Nunn “performed slightly better” than Barrow in a “head-to-head matchup against Republican Jack Kingston” in the Senate race.

Which means, well, not much, considering that most of those polled had to be told who Michelle Nunn is. Also, in my experience, it’s virtually pointless to speculate about the strength of any candidate if you’ve never seen how he or she performs during the heat of a political campaign.

Which brings us to the final pool of potential Senate candidates. With the Republicans, the question is, who’s next in line. The Democrats, however, realize that most of their elder statesmen are seen as yesterday’s news. Instead, they’re looking to smart, fresh-faced newcomers who’ve managed to make their marks in the GOP-controlled state Legislature. Among the names most often mentioned are those of freshman state Reps. Stacey Evans of Smyrna and Scott Holcomb of Atlanta, as well as Sen. Jason Carter, grandson of you-know-who.

A side note: While House Minority Leader Stacy Abrams is seen as one of the brightest lights among the Democrats, for reasons not openly discussed, most strategists seem to believe the party’s best chance lies with a white candidate. Unless, perhaps, the candidate were named Kasim Reed, but the Atlanta mayor has been unequivocal in his disinterest in running.

Carter has already gone on record as saying he wouldn’t run for the Senate seat, so the Democrats’ window of opportunity seem to be closing. So let’s replace Barrow with one last scenario: a failed but otherwise appealing statewide candidate who could bring some needed demographic muscle to the Senate race. It’s a good bet that former Secretary of State Cathy Cox’s phone is ringing off the hook this week.