Obama's Endorsement of Conservative (Incumbent) Democrat Is Nothing New

Barack Obama has drawn some criticism from left-of-center blogs today for cutting a radio ad in support of Representative John Barrow of Georgia, a conservative Democrat who is facing a primary challenge from a more liberal candidate next month.

“One of the most enthusiastic enablers of the radical and lawless policies of the Bush administration,” writes Glenn Greenwald, citing Barrow’s positions on Iraq and the FISA debate.

There are two things worth noting about this.

One is that Obama’s endorsement of Barrow probably shouldn’t be seen as an endorsement of Barrow’s politics.

It’s only the latest example of Obama backing a Democratic incumbent almost as a default. He supported Joe Lieberman over Ned Lamont in 2006, for instance, just as he backed Hawaii’s Daniel Akaka when Representative Ed Case challenged him the same year. Lieberman and Akaka’s positions on the war and other national security issues are widely divergent-–but they were both incumbent Democrats, and that seems to be where Obama’s loyalties lie.

It’s ironic, because just eight years ago Obama played the challenger himself when he took on Representative Bobby Rush in a Congressional primary. But just as Obama now routinely comes to the defense of incumbent Democrats, the national Democratic establishment–including Bill Clinton–lined up with Rush against Obama in 2000. Obama lost that race by 40 points.

A second thing to consider is the set of circumstances that led to Barrow’s primary challenge, which is from State Senator Regina Thomas. There’s no question that her platform is to the left of Barrow–she is stressing his war and wiretapping views–and she is tapping into a sympathetic national progressive community for moral and financial support. But there’s probably at least a little opportunism in her decision to run.

Georgia’s 12th District is extremely polarized. Most of the Democratic electorate is black–so is about 45 percent of the overall population–while the white areas of the district strongly favor the G.O.P. It’s a situation that produces tight fall races. Barrow unseated Republican Max Burns in 2004 by four points, then withstood a challenge from Burns in 2006 by just 864 votes–the closest race in the nation and one that wasn’t settled until well after Election Day.

One reason the 2006 race was so close is that during Georgia’s 2005 redistricting, Republicans cut the university town of Athens–full of Democratic-leaning white voters–out of the 12th district. The newly configured district was more Republican-friendly on the whole, while its black population also grew. Those demographic changes created the perfect situation for a primary challenge to Barrow from a black candidate like Thomas.

Also, unlike most marginal Southern seats, there may not be much advantage in the 12th for the Democrats to field a moderate-to-conservative nominee like Barrow in the fall. Because of the polarization, it could be argued that–much more than elsewhere– there isn’t much room for either party’s candidate to earn crossover support. If that’s true, then Thomas, if she secures the nomination in the primary, might be just as likely as Barrow to win against a Republican opponent.