Democrats’ hope of retaking House fades in polarized campaign

Rep. John Barrow, the last white Democrat from the Deep South running for reelection, talks with voters at the home of a Republican supporter in Augusta, Ga.
(Russ Bynum, Associated Press)

METTER, Ga. — Early on a Saturday morning, four-term Rep. John Barrow, one of a dwindling number of moderate Democrats in Congress, sat down for coffee and biscuits with constituents as he campaigned in his party’s uphill drive to retake the House.

His audience was as small as his prospects for finding votes in southeastern Georgia. Of the two men who showed up, one was a Republican who asked why the Harvard-educated lawyer didn’t just switch parties. Barrow is the last white Democrat from the Deep South running for reelection.

“I’m trying to show folks on my side of the aisle how to vote,” said Barrow, who in one television ad cocks a rifle to show his commitment to the 2nd Amendment and displays a pistol he said his grandfather brandished to help stop a lynching.

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Republicans are expected to retain control of the House, in large part because there is little room left in either party for middle-of-the-road lawmakers such as Barrow. The so-called Blue Dog Democrat is running against Lee Anderson, a farmer and conservative state legislator who calls President Obama a socialist.

Democratic hopes for a takeover have faded as races tightened in the final weeks. Underlying this election is a polarized political climate, as well as newly drawn congressional boundaries. The redrawn districts shored up Republican-held seats and largely ceded cities to Democrats, which has put the party on track to have the most diverse caucus ever, the first without a white-male majority.

Tuesday’s outcome is likely to send to Washington a large freshman class that would make the House even more deeply divided ideologically. “We’re headed for the most polarized Congress in history,” said David Wasserman, the House analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “Blue Dogs are shrinking and the tea party continues to grow.”

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The battle for control of the House is playing out beyond the swing states targeted by Obama and Republican Mitt Romney — in the so-called orphan states of California, Illinois and New York, which are Democratic strongholds.

Democrats are certain to flip some seats in these states, primarily by targeting Republicans in districts that Obama won in 2008. And they have their sights on others: Michigan hay farmer Gary McDowell is running against Republican freshman Dan Benishek, a physician, in the Upper Peninsula; and former Iowa First Lady Christie Vilsack is challenging conservative firebrand Rep. Steve King.

And some Republicans have encountered hurdles of their own. Tea party favorites Michele Bachmann in Minnesota and Allen West in Florida are in tough reelection battles as opponents criticize their lightning-rod national profiles.

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But a Republican strategy to target the remaining moderate Democrats, who are largely in the Southern states, leaves Democrats likely to fall short of the 25 seats needed to win back the majority.

Barrow’s fellow Blue Dogs in Arkansas and North Carolina are retiring. Two others in the Tar Heel State are in close reelection battles. Republican Mia Love, mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, poses a challenge to Rep. Jim Matheson, who is a leader of the Blue Dogs.

Wasserman and other analysts have downgraded Democratic prospects, saying they’ll gain at most a handful of seats.

“These races are so close,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic minority leader from San Francisco who is positioned to wield the speaker’s gavel again if her party regains control. “Every day is like an opening of a new scene in each of the races.”

House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio launched a home-state bus tour Saturday to promote the entire Republican ticket.

Boehner has struggled to corral House Republicans since becoming speaker with the 2010 tea party wave, which brought a record 87 GOP freshmen in a sweep unseen since the New Deal.

Most of those freshmen will return, their districts secure for the next few years. Republicans pushed state legislatures during the redistricting process not so much for new districts that favored them, but for hardening existing ones.

Among the changes is a new district in Columbus, Ohio, that tilts Democratic, but also two seats in the suburbs that are safer for Republicans.

At the same time moderate Democrats are threatened, the remaining Republican moderates are also being squeezed. Maryland’s Roscoe G. Bartlett is now in a more Democratic district, jeopardizing his hopes for an 11th term. Republican Rep. Charles Bass has a tough race in the Democratic-leaning western side of New Hampshire.

Although Democrats will gain the most diversity, one outlier is Richard Tisei of Massachusetts, a socially moderate fiscal conservative who could become the only openly gay Republican in the House.

As candidates make the final push, their messages mostly mirror those in the presidential campaign — Democrats warn that Republicans will end Medicare and give tax breaks to the wealthy; Republicans argue Democrats will raise taxes and over-expand the social safety net. Wasserman said this means that for voters, the election is more a choice over party control than “who they think will best fix their streetlights.”

For Barrow, that Saturday morning restaurant stop was the first on a daylong trek to small towns, as he worked to solidify support among voters who know him and to meet others in the now-Republican-heavy district who don’t.

Barrow is doing better than expected against the unpracticed Anderson, a large man with silver swept-back hair and a trim mustache who is slow-spoken on the stump. But Anderson’s team has plastered the district with his unusual campaign poster — a tractor with the slogan “Conservative for Congress” — which is about all he has to say as he aims to strengthen the Republican hold on the Deep South, and with it, the House.