Last Tuesday night, for the third time, Roy Barnes won the Democratic nomination for governor.
With 66 percent of the primary vote in his pocket, the former resident of the Governor’s Mansion held up the front page of that day’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The lead headline, “State falls further behind,” was a reference to school test scores.
Barnes thanked his supporters, complimented his defeated opponents, and condemned Republicans who “gave tax breaks to special interests and then had to lay off teachers and shorten the school year to cover up their mistakes.”
And then he dropped off the face of metro Atlanta.
Not even an Aug. 2 visit to Atlanta by President Barack Obama will bring Barnes back. “He’s going to be in Middle and South Georgia,” campaign manager Chris Carpenter said Saturday.
Barnes has bet his campaign on rural Georgia — the one that turned its back on him in 2002 for his removal of the Confederate battle emblem from its place on the state flag.
“Roy Barnes told me about six months ago that if he wins this election he’ll have to win it south of Macon,” said Bobby Rowan, a former state senator and former member of the Public Service Commission.
On Saturday, Rowan was one of the organizers of a 12-county rally featuring Barnes, held in the little town of Enigma, just east of Tifton.
Rowan calls his hometown a “depressed agricultural mecca.”
“It’s sad down here,” he said in advance of the Saturday bash. Ingredients for what Rowan insisted was a bipartisan event included bottled iced water, iced tea, lemonade, watermelon and boiled peanuts.
“We’ve got some little girls that’s wearing T-shirts that say ‘Barnes chicks.’ They’re going to pass out 1,500 of these ol’ church fans,” Rowan said. “The last time something like this was had down in South Georgia was when Carl Sanders took on Marvin Griffin. That was 1962.”
That was the same year Rowan, now 75, was first elected to the state Senate.
But Rowan, known for his poetic drawl and populist style, was exaggerating. The last time we saw a gubernatorial campaign like this was in 2002.
A Democrat-turned-Republican state senator named Sonny Perdue picked out 70 counties in rural Georgia that, four years earlier, had voted for both Barnes and U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell, a Republican.
While the Roy Barnes of 2002 worked from Atlanta and hardly ever shed his business suit, each Friday night would see Perdue on the sidelines of several South Georgia high school football games, shaking hands and slapping backs.
Those rural swing counties and a promise to put the 1956 state flag and its Confederate battle emblem up for a statewide vote formed the core of the effort that made Perdue the first Republican governor in 130 years.
Carpenter, the Barnes campaign manager, acknowledged strategic similarities between the Perdue campaign of 2002 and the Barnes campaign of 2010. “We’ve taken our campaign all across the state. Roy’s been to over 90 counties,” he said.
In last week’s balloting, Republican voters cast twice as many ballots as Democrats. But the Barnes campaign doesn’t believe the GOP grasp on rural Georgia is as strong as many think.
Carpenter is a great believer in maps. One of those on the wall of the campaign manager’s Marietta office shows the Georgia counties with Democratic sheriffs — 108 of 159.
The majority of these Democratic sheriffs work below the gnat line.
While it has a Republican sheriff, Berrien County — home to Enigma — is one of those counties that voted for Barnes in 1998, then swung to Perdue in 2002.
Rowan thinks his county is ready to swing again.
Neither Nathan Deal nor Karen Handel, the two Republicans left in the race for governor, has paid Berrien County a visit. Eric Johnson of Savannah won the Republican side of the primary in Berrien, followed by John Oxendine.
Rowan doesn’t think party labels will matter in November.
“We frankly don’t care anymore,” he said. “Partisan politics has passed us. Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if Roy Barnes could roll up a 60 to 70 percent win in our county.”
Margins of that size, reached in multiple rural counties, could offset balloting from the Republican-dominated counties of metro Atlanta. A heavy turnout for Barnes in rural Georgia would essentially crack the super-majority of white voters required for statewide GOP victories.
Rowan said the Confederate enthusiasts who dogged Barnes throughout the 2002 campaign are no longer a concern. “Sonny promised them a vote. They know they ain’t never getting a vote,” Rowan said.
But it is the economy of South Georgia that has leveled the playing field, the former legislator said.
“This whole election, it ain’t about a $3 tag, it ain’t about a chicken in every pot. It’s about a job for every man that’ll work. That’s the issue,” Rowan said.
He told of an unemployed friend who’d recently confessed that, while his neighbors thought him prosperous, he was about to lose his house.
“That man is not Republican or Democrat. He’s a human being,” Rowan said. “But if you make him a promise, and he believes you might can help him, that’s where his vote’s going.
“He won’t even slow down to think about Republicans or Democrats. It’s too late for that,” Rowan said.