SAVANNAH — Republicans have redrawn district lines to their advantage and set aside nearly $1 million for the upcoming fight for east Georgia's 12th Congressional District. Now the GOP has to wait for voters to choose which of four would-be opponents will challenge Democratic Rep. John Barrow in the fall.
The July 31 primary will be one of the most closely watched in Georgia. Republicans have their best shot in years at ousting the four-term congressman after GOP-led state
lawmakers reconfigured the district last year to carve out Savannah, Barrow's home and a big chunk of his Democratic base.
The candidates have spent months crisscrossing the 19-county district, which roams nearly 160 miles north to south from Augusta to rural Coffee County and covers the Interstate 16 corridor between Dublin, Statesboro and Effingham County northeast of Savannah. For most voters here, the GOP contenders are all new faces.
"I was a little surprised at that at first. I kind of thought there might be some bigger-name folks to have jumped in," said Bob Finnegan, Republican chairman for Richmond County. "Barrow is not a pushover. If people think this is going to be a cakewalk, they're wrong."
State Rep. Lee Anderson, a Grovetown hay farmer, is the only Republican contender with experience holding office. Some may recognize Dublin attorney Maria Sheffield as the runner-up from the 2010 GOP primary race for state insurance commissioner. Meanwhile, she's focusing on support from tea party groups and other grassroots conservatives.
However, two political newcomers from Augusta have dominated the spotlight — both for raising the most cash and for launching attacks on each other's credibility.
Wright McLeod is a real estate attorney citing his 20 years as a Navy fighter pilot and the endorsement of former U.S. Rep. Max Burns, who used to represent the 12th District. Burns, now president of Gordon College in Barnesville, said in an email that he plans to cast his ballot for McLeod.
Rick W. Allen is the owner of a construction company that's built many of Augusta's hospitals, shopping centers and college campus buildings. A former board member of the local chamber of commerce, Allen is pitching himself to voters based on his experience as a businessman and employer.
Allen, 60, has reported the most campaign cash — $368,000 that includes $100,000 of his own money. He's also aggressively courted a rivalry with McLeod, who has raised more than $284,000, by questioning his loyalty to the Republican Party. Georgia election records show McLeod voted in five Democratic primary elections since 2002, including the 2008 Democratic presidential primary with Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the ballot.
"In 2008 you vote in a Democratic presidential preference primary and you're thinking about running for Congress in the Republican party in 2012? I don't know about that," Allen said. "And voters need to know this. It may not matter to some voters. For others, it's going to matter."
McLeod, 48, insists he's been a staunch Republican since Ronald Reagan won the presidency while the young Georgian was attending the naval academy. He said he voted a Democratic presidential primary ballot in 2008 "just to stir the pot" in hopes of prolonging the bruising race between Obama and Clinton — a decision he now regrets.
"If I'd known I was going to run for Congress, I sure wouldn't have done it. That's for sure," McLeod said. "Why I didn't just go in there and vote for John McCain, I don't know."
While Allen has sought to make his rival's crossover voting an issue, records from the Georgia Secretary of State's office show the Augusta businessman also voted in Democratic primaries in 1998 and 2004. In an interview, Allen gave virtually the same response McLeod did for voting in other Democratic primaries. Both men said they did it to support friends running for sheriff and other local offices.
McLeod called Allen a "tremendous hypocrite" for questioning his loyalty to the GOP.
Finnegan, the Augusta area's GOP chairman, said he's concerned sparring between the candidates could distract Republicans from their real goal of defeating Barrow.
"Once it's out there, they don't need to keep hammering the point," he said.
Whoever wins the primary, or more likely a runoff election between the top two vote-getters on Aug. 21, will benefit from $900,000 the National Republican Congressional Committee has promised to pour into advertising on the general election campaign against Barrow. Barrow has no primary opponent.
On the issues, all four candidates want to slash the federal budget, increase domestic oil production, repeal President Barack Obama's health care overhaul and simplify the tax code.
After watching the candidates at a forum last month, Vidalia tea party coordinator Jim Anderson said he concluded: "There wasn't a lot of difference."
Anderson the tea party coordinator, who's not related to Anderson the candidate, said he and other members of his group seem to be leaning toward McLeod as well as Sheffield. He said he likes McLeod's history of military service and legal training. Sheffield, meanwhile, has made courting tea party voters a priority of her campaign.
Lee Anderson the candidate, 55, has made a bold promise to cut every federal agency's budget by 5 percent, sparing only the Defense Department, while cutting his own congressional salary by 20 percent.
He's counting on voters who know him from four years in the state House and four years as a Columbia County commissioner. He's also courting fellow farmers who know Anderson as a former president of the local farm bureau. He had raised $210,500 as of March 31, putting him behind newcomers Allen and McLeod.
"At least 50 percent or more of this district is agricultural," Anderson said. "You take away Columbia and Richmond counties and the others are just good, solid rural farm counties."
Sheffield, 38, left metro Atlanta and moved to Dublin, where she has family, shortly before joining the campaign. She's a detail-oriented candidate. Want to know Sheffield's plan for improving jobs? She explains it in a 7-minute video on her website. When a group sent Sheffield its candidate questionnaire, she says, her answers filled 30 pages.
Still, Sheffield is relying on grassroots support and donors who often give as little as $5 to $20. As of March 31, her campaign was running on $100,000 Sheffield had loaned herself and $14,000 she raised elsewhere.
"We have for the most part a bunch of unknowns in this race," Sheffield said. "So I don't think having the most money is the key to success."