SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — A year after Georgia lawmakers redrew the state's political map, Republicans are pushing hard to pick up two congressional seats in the November elections and add muscle to the GOP's influence in Washington and at home.
Only one of Georgia's 13 current House members is considered at serious risk of losing his job on Capitol Hill this fall. But there's also a new, open seat up for grabs. GOP victories in both districts would tilt the state's U.S. House delegation from eight Republicans to 10 while shrinking its Democratic membership from five seats to four.
"When I was elected, we had seven Republican congressmen," said Georgia Republican Party chairman Sue Everhart, who's in the final year of her term after taking the job in 2007. "I would love to leave Georgia with 10 (GOP) congressmen to represent them in Washington. Then I would think I've done my job."
The GOP is almost assured to pick up one seat. Georgia got to add a 14th congressional district because of population growth shown in the 2010 Census. Mapmakers centered the open seat in Gov. Nathan Deal's former political turf in the Gainesville area north of Atlanta. The seat packs in more Republican voters than any in Georgia, giving GOP state Rep. Doug Collins a huge advantage over Democratic attorney Jody Cooley.
But the race being watched nationally is that of Rep. John Barrow, the last white Democratic congressman from the Deep South.
Redistricting last year forced Barrow to move from Savannah to Augusta to stay with his shifting 12th District. The new district lines tilted Barrow's east Georgia seat in the GOP's favor and the national Republican Party is spending $900,000 on attack ads to help elect the congressman's opponent, Lee Anderson, a state lawmaker and farmer from Grovetown.
The Democratic Party has spent about 33 cents for every GOP dollar. But Barrow started the fall campaign with $1.3 million in the bank, while Anderson had to spend heavily on a hotly contested GOP primary race.
Barrow's best chance of winning a fifth term is to persuade GOP-leaning voters that he's independent enough for them to ignore party labels.
It's been a tricky tightrope act for Barrow to win over both core Democrats in Augusta and more conservative independents in the district's rural areas such as Statesboro and Vidalia. His record has votes to appeal to both sides, and to rile them.
Barrow voted against President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, but he's opposed repealing it. His votes to uphold gun rights earned him an endorsement from the National Rifle Association, yet he also supported allowing gays to serve openly in the military. Barrow has voted in favor of the president on stimulus spending, but has opposed Democrats seeking to end Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has bombarded the district with attack ads that seek to tie Barrow directly to Obama. Meanwhile, the congressman's opponent, Anderson, says Barrow is being dishonest by tailoring his message to different audiences.
One of Barrow's first TV ads of the campaign boasted that he votes 54 percent of the time with Rep. Eric Cantor, the House Republican leader, and voted 12 times to repeal "the worst parts" of Obama's health care law. A recent fundraising letter to Democratic supporters stated "I have supported the President and the Democratic leadership 85 percent of the time."
"My math teacher in the 5th grade would put a big 'F' on that test," Anderson said. "He's a flip-flopper."
Barrow denied any duplicity. He noted the same fundraising letter states he has voted against Democratic leaders when their positions clash with the district.
"If you are going to be finding common cause with folks on both sides of the aisle, you're only going to appear to be two-faced to people who think that's impossible," Barrow said.
Despite the high stakes, don't expect to see Barrow and Anderson meet face-to-face before Election Day. After stumbling in debates before the GOP primary, Anderson has turned down invitations to debate Barrow, a Harvard-educated attorney.
Anderson has said he'll consider a debate only if Barrow, in a videotaped interview, tells voters he will vote for Obama. That may sound simple, but in a phone interview with The Associated Press, Barrow refused to give a direct answer when asked several times to name his pick for president. Instead, Barrow said he won't vote for "somebody who has committed to a plan to privatize Medicare and Social Security." When pressed, he said he was talking about Republican Mitt Romney.
Barrow meanwhile is telling voters Anderson will support Romney's plan to replace traditional Medicare with a voucher system for Americans now 54 and younger. Barrow says the plan will cut benefits. Anderson, a Romney supporter, insisted he's not committed to any plan for preserving Medicare and will oppose any cuts.
Races outside Barrow's district are generating few sparks.
Georgia's newest congressman, GOP Rep. Austin Scott of Tifton, escaped any opposition this year after he narrowly ousted Democratic Rep. Jim Marshall in 2010. GOP mapmakers fortified Scott's 8th District by moving pockets of Democratic voters in the Macon area to the 2nd District of Rep. Sanford Bishop, a Columbus Democrat.
The swap also gave Bishop a welcome infusion of black voters, making him much tougher to beat after he barely won re-election two years ago. Republican John House, a retired Army colonel, is running against the 10-term congressman.
The one Republican weakened by his new district, Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah, is still favored to win an 11th term. Kingston was forced to take on thousands of Savannah Democrats voters carved from Barrow's district. However, Kingston's 1st District seat still leans strongly Republican.
First-time candidate Lesli Messinger, the only Georgia woman running for Congress, hopes female voters will turn against Kingston after other Republicans — namely former presidential hopeful Rick Santorum and Missouri Rep. Todd Akin — made controversial statements this year regarding birth control and rape.
Kingston is focusing on core conservative themes of balancing the federal budget and supporting the military. He's raised $1.2 million to defend his seat. Messinger reported only a personal loan of $26,000 in July and said she can barely afford yard signs. Does she think she can win?
"I fluctuate," Messinger said. "I'll tell you what though, I'm determined that I will be a congresswoman for District 1 in Georgia. If it takes the next time, I will not give up."