SAVANNAH — Rather than take shots at each other, Democratic Rep. John Barrow and the Republican running for his east Georgia congressional seat have rolled out early campaign ads taking aim at the same target: President Barack Obama.
Barrow of Augusta is running for a sixth House term in Georgia's 12th District, where his re-election chances hinge on the Democrat's ability to win support from independent and conservative voters in a seat drawn to favor Republicans. His race against GOP businessman Rick Allen is considered one of the most competitive congressional campaigns of 2014. That explains why both candidates are buying TV ads for the Nov. 4 election before Labor Day. So are the national Republican and Democratic parties, which have already spent more than $482,000 on ads directly attacking Barrow and Allen.
Barrow's newest ad, which began airing Thursday, shows the congressman at the Port of Savannah as he talks of battling the White House to help jumpstart a $706 million expansion of the port's busy shipping channel.
"When the Obama administration didn't put the funding to deepen the port in their budget, I took them on," Barrow says in the ad. "And this year, we finally got it done."
Savannah, like other East Coast ports, is scrambling to deepen its harbor to make room for supersized cargo ships expected once the Panama Canal finishes a major expansion. The Savannah project was granted a federal permit in 2012, but Washington has yet to fund it. Georgia officials were stunned in March when Obama's proposed budget for fiscal 2015 contained no construction money. The White House insisted that first Congress needed to raise an outdated spending cap that was nearly $250 million below the project's estimated cost. In remarks on the House floor, Barrow urged Obama "to lead, follow, or get out of the way."
Though Congress did raise the project's spending limit in May as part of a larger water projects bill, the federal government still hasn't put up the cash. Georgia plans to start dredging using its own money.
Allen's first TV ad of the fall campaign, released last week, also points a finger at the president while ignoring Barrow altogether.
"Look at the mess Obama's made," Allen says. "Veterans dying, ignored by the VA. The crisis on our border. His government can't even run a health-care website."
The Augusta Republican goes on to say, "Yet, not a single bureaucrat's been fired and the career politicians are letting the president get away with it." He fails to mention that Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned in May over delayed treatment for veterans, while Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius stepped down in April after the rocky rollout of the government's health-care website.
Obama is an unpopular figure with many voters in the 12th District, which covers 19 mostly rural counties and includes the cities of Augusta, Statesboro, Vidalia and Dublin. Barrow has thwarted previous GOP challengers by asserting independence from the president. He outraged fellow Democrats in 2010 by voting against Obama's health-care overhaul and in 2012 refused to say whether he supported Obama's re-election. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney easily carried Barrow's district in the last election.
Republicans want to convince voters that Barrow's relationship with the president is cozier than he portrays it. The National Republican Congressional Committee has been airing a TV ad featuring a mother of five from Augusta who says, "John Barrow votes with Barack Obama on every issue that's important to us here in Georgia. He gets wrapped up in the politics of Washington and forgets about the constituents back home."
The NRCC ad states "John Barrow voted with Obama 85 percent of the time" — a claim that's repeated in second ad Republicans began airing Friday. That percentage appears to be true if you look only at 2009, the first year of Obama's presidency.
The Republican ad credits that statistic to an analysis by Congressional Quarterly of 2009 votes of individual members of Congress. But the same Washington publication reported in later years that Barrow was much more likely to vote against the president's position on issues. It calculated Barrow voted in support of Obama's position 83 percent of the time in 2010, 59.5 percent in 2011, 29.5 percent in 2012 and 35 percent last year.
"It's a very deceptive number," Barrow spokesman Richard Carbo said of the Republican ad's 85-percent figure.
Meanwhile, Democrats have begun attacking Allen in an ad that also ignores some relevant facts. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's ad criticizes Allen's construction company for taking government contracts "while Georgia families struggle."
"And our sales taxes were raised to pay for 16 of Allen's contracts," says an announcer in the DCCC ad.
The DCCC cites some 26 government projects worth $184 million that Allen's construction firm was awarded in an 18-year span. The tax-increase claim is correct if you fault voters for raising taxes on themselves. The 16 projects singled out in the Democrats' ad were all funded through penny sales taxes approved by local referendums.
"Rick has never been a politician," said Allen campaign spokesman Dan McLagan. "He's a businessman who built schools and libraries and the like because the taxpayers voted for them to be built."