The political repercussions of Democratic Rep. John Barrow’s “no” vote on the health care reform bill Sunday are reverberating on Capitol Hill and in his eastern Georgia district this week, as talk of the three-term Congressman drawing a serious primary challenge is heating up.
Barrow’s vote against President Barack Obama’s most important legislative priority is being viewed by some as a betrayal, especially after Obama and Members of the Congressional Black Caucus stood by the Congressman last cycle to help him win a primary challenge against a black state legislator in a district that is 44 percent black.
“Congressman Barrow received the support of Obama [in 2008] and then he ran away from our president at his hour of need,” state Sen. Emanuel Jones, chairman of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, said this week.
“I don’t know if there is going to be another issue more important” to black voters than health care, Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) said. “Health care is the new civil rights issue. … I don’t think the president will be down there endorsing [Barrow] again.”
Asked Wednesday about CBC frustration with his opposition to the health care bill, Barrow said, “I understand the frustration, but I’ve issued a statement explaining my vote,” before ducking onto the House floor.
Barrow is already facing former state Sen. Regina Thomas in a rematch of the 2008 primary that Barrow eventually won in a cakewalk after Obama’s endorsement. But in recent days, there has been increased speculation about a possible primary bid by state Sen. Lester Jackson, who replaced Thomas in the state Senate in 2008 after serving a decade in the state House.
Along with his work in the state legislature, Jackson, who is black, is a dentist and a Democratic national committeeman. Jackson was a champion of the health care bill in his home state and worked to rally support for the legislation. On the day before the vote, Jackson helped put together a conference call of elected officials and faith leaders that spent an hour on the phone with Barrow lobbying him to vote for the bill. For his efforts over the course of the debate, Jackson was invited to the White House on Tuesday to witness the president sign the legislation that Barrow voted against.
Under one scenario, Jackson’s entry into the primary would allow Thomas — who was never a strong fundraiser during her 2008 run and had less than $5,000 on hand at the end of 2009 — to drop out of the Congressional contest and run for her old state Senate seat. That would allow Jackson to consolidate the support of black voters, who are expected to make up nearly two-thirds of the Democratic primary electorate in the 12th district this summer.
If Jackson doesn’t run, another possible primary challenger being floated by Georgia insiders this week is state Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond. Thurmond, who is black, doesn’t live in the district and is running for re-election to his statewide office. But Georgia Democrats say he’s a candidate with the name recognition and statewide connections to step into the 12th district race and give Barrow a serious challenge.
Reached Wednesday, Jackson acknowledged that a Congressional run is an “appealing” possibility.
“In my district there are a number of people that are upset with our current Congressman and they are asking for change and they want it to happen now,” he said.
But Jackson said he’s focused on his duties in the state Senate and that work leaves him little time to focus on a Congressional race.
“I’m not closing the door, [but] after we end our session, it will be a week before qualifying. … I don’t see it as in the cards because of the time line.”
But it seems a lobbying effort is under way to draft Jackson.
“Sen. Jackson is my first and last choice” to take on Barrow, Jones said. “I’m sure he’d be the choice of the majority of our members.”
Chatham County Democratic Committee Chairman Tony Center, who also serves as the 12th district chairman for the state Democratic Party, said there’s no question that Jackson is a “major player” in local Democratic circles and could give Barrow a real race.
But the ticking electoral clock appears to be on Barrow’s side.
“The timing of the [health care] vote coupled with the fact that candidates have to qualify in a month are two of the strongest factors in John’s favor,” Center said.
And a July 20 primary would mean that any candidate would have to raise a lot of money very quickly to contend with the nearly $680,000 in cash on hand that Barrow showed in his latest Federal Election Commission report.
One way that a primary challenger might be able to raise money quickly is to look to sympathetic members of the CBC, who made Barrow the target of an intense lobbying effort on the health care bill last week and, according to some Capitol Hill aides, threatened to get involved in the 12th district primary if Barrow didn’t back the president.
Brown said Tuesday that she isn’t getting involved in any sort of candidate recruitment in the district but hasn’t ruled out helping a primary challenger against Barrow.
A spokeswoman for Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said the civil rights icon who has supported Barrow in the past had “no comment” on the political implications of Barrow’s health care vote.
Fellow Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson (D) said Tuesday that it would be “unseemly” for him to support someone against Barrow.
“There might be some individual [CBC] representatives who would do that, but I would not be among them,” Johnson said.
Tory Newmyer contributed to this report.