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Burns Goes on the Attack

Freshman Is First House Incumbent to Run Negative Spot

The race between Rep. Max Burns (R-Ga.) and Athens-Clarke County Commissioner John Barrow (D) was officially joined this week, as both candidates began airing attack ads in what promises to be one of the most competitive — and potentially negative — races this cycle.

Burns was pegged early on as the most vulnerable Republican up for re-election, and the contest in Georgia’s sprawling 12th district tops this year’s list of must-win races for Democrats.

Burns, who has been airing a positive bio spot since mid-August, went up with a new ad Monday that portrays Barrow as a liberal trial lawyer who can’t be trusted to protect jobs. The ad makes no mention of either candidates’ party affiliation.

“Barrow is a liberal trial lawyer who flunks the Athens-Clarke County Chamber’s business-friendly test,” a narrator says in the spot as a grainy, unflattering picture of Barrow rolls by. “He was the least job-friendly of all 10 county commissioners.”

The spot marks the first negative TV ad run by a House incumbent this cycle, further underscoring Burns’ vulnerability and the fact that both campaigns are digging in for a nasty seven-week sprint.

“We made the decision to do this because John Barrow in the primary ran behind slick TV ads,” said Burns campaign manager Tim Baker. “People down South really don’t know who John Barrow is.”

Barrow is not holding his fire either, and he is expected to be on the air as early as today with a new ad highlighting Burns’ voting record on prescription drugs.

The ad will run on broadcast stations in Augusta and Savannah and on cable in Athens, which is covered by the cost-prohibitive Atlanta market.

While the ad mentions Burns, it does not feature his likeness, and Barrow campaign manager Roman Levit went to great lengths to characterize the spot as comparative, not negative.

“It truly is a comparative spot,” Levit insisted. “There is a difference between a negative spot and a comparative spot.”

This is the first TV ad that Barrow has run since winning a July primary. Both candidates have raised more than $1 million for the race and are expected to remain on the air through Election Day.

While the race is a top priority for both national parties, neither the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee nor the National Republican Congressional Committee had reserved ad time in the district as of last week.

“We expect that the NRCC and [Majority Leader] Tom DeLay [R-Texas] will take off all the gloves and pull out all the stops to try to save a rubber stamp of what they want,” Levit said. “I would expect that this first ad is simply the beginning of the lies and dishonesty that are going to come out of Max Burns’ campaign. The guy doesn’t know how to campaign any other way.”

The effort by Barrow’s campaign to link Burns to national Republicans comes as little surprise in a district that overwhelmingly favors Democrats.

Burns was elected in 2002, beating a Democratic opponent who ultimately proved to be unelectable. The 12th district, which stretches from Savannah to Augusta to Athens, was one of two new seats created after last cycle’s reapportionment and it was drawn to elect a Democrat.

Then-Vice President Al Gore (D) won 54 percent in the district even though he lost the state by a 12-point margin. Further illustrating the Democratic leanings of the district, then-Sen. Max Cleland (D) won 57 percent there in 2002, while only garnering 46 percent statewide.

While the first attacks were lobbed on television this week, the fireworks in the race have been ongoing for months as both sides have been laying the groundwork for a costly, high-profile battle.

Democrats recently criticized Burns for sending a letter to constituents claiming that he “created” the Homeland Security Department when in fact the new agency was approved before Burns took office.

Burns’ campaign, meanwhile, has charged that Barrow has flipped-flopped on the issue of gay marriage — opposing a federal amendment to ban gay marriage during the primary and now supporting it.

While acknowledging that Burns has a tough road ahead, NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) expressed confidence in his ability to win in November.

“To his credit he has a good legislative program that he can run on,” Reynolds said at a briefing with reporters Tuesday. “He has put together a good campaign in Georgia 12. And finally he’s crossed over one million bucks, so he’s got money in order to get his message out.”

When pressed on whether Burns is the most vulnerable Republican in the House, Reynolds demurred.

“Is it a tough seat, you bet,” he said.

Baker, Burns’ campaign manager, echoed Reynolds in maintaining that the freshman lawmaker isn’t planning to run away from his record.

“We’re not afraid of our record. We think we have a good record for the people of the 12th district,” he said. “It’s a district where we know what we need to do to win on November 2.”

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Photos of the week ending December 8, 2023