WASHINGTON – Two former GOP members are trying to win back their old seats in the House this election year, and are trying to use the threat from the words "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi" to do it.
Like many Republicans running in friendly red states, former Georgia Reps. Mac Collins and Max Burns are telling their potential constituencies that a vote for their Democratic opponents is a vote for liberal leadership in Washington, D.C.
"What you're seeing here is pretty much what you are seeing everywhere," said South Carolina-based Republican strategist Eliot Peace. "Whether or not it's true or whether voters are buying into it — I don't know."
Collins and Burns say they don't just have the liberal bugaboo on their sides — they think redistricting in these vastly rural Georgia districts has made their chances at getting back into Congress a whole lot better. The boundaries, drawn by the Republican-led state Legislature, were approved by the courts and accepted by the Department of Justice in March 2005 after more than four years of legal challenges.
"In the long run, Republicans will turn out in November and have a strong showing and we will be able to unseat this incumbent," said Collins, who in 2004 left his 3rd District seat of 12 years to run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate.
Now, he is running in the newly redrawn 8th District, with a constituency that is even more Republican than it was before.
"They are very supportive of the president in this area and of the war [in Iraq]," Collins said.
"It's extremely competitive right now," said Burns, who lost his seat to Barrow in 2004.
The newly redrawn 12th District is slightly less Democratic, with the liberal college town of Athens removed, but it still favors Democrats, mostly due to a large black population.
"Both districts are substantially better for Republican candidates and Republicans recruited the best candidates they could get in Burns and Collins," said Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Campaign.
Democratic party representatives acknowledge that these are two particularly competitive races, but given the national mood against Republicans and the power of incumbency, say the GOP may be hyping its chances a bit.
"Both Marshall and Barrow have proven themselves to be independent congressmen," said Emil Runge, spokesman for the Democratic Party of Georgia. "They are both an excellent reflection of their respective districts and they do an excellent job at serving that need."
Officials for the Marshall and Barrow campaigns couldn't agree more.
"This is not Texas," said Harper Lawson, spokesman for Barrow, referring to the now famous redistricting plan that resulted in landslide victories for Texas Republicans in 2004. "This is excellent territory for a mainstream conservative Democrat and that is exactly what John Barrow is."
Barrow, an attorney and former Athens-Clarke County commissioner, beat Burns 52 percent to 48 percent in 2004. But the approved redistricting map removed his base of Athens-Clarke County and forced Barrow to move within the new 12th District boundaries to keep his seat. Some heavily Republican counties were also brought into the 12th District from neighboring areas.
Lawson said he doesn't see all the shifting of populations as a problem, and cited Barrow's support of moderate legislative efforts like reforming Social Security and balancing the budget as issues with which to pull support.
"He has proven to be one of the most independent member of Congress … that's the way he campaigns, to be an independent voce for the 12th District," Lawson said.
Meanwhile, Doug Moore, spokesman for Marshall, said Collins may think he's got great name recognition in the 8th District, but most of the voters there haven't been represented by Collins before.
"They don't know who he is," said Moore. "I take issue with the fact that he is a strong candidate because he is a former congressman."
Marshall won his seat in the 3rd District in 2002. The congressional map had undergone a redistricting then and Collins' seat had shifted into what had been the 8th District. Now that the map has changed again, Marshall will have to compete in the 8th.
A decorated Vietnam veteran who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, Marshall is considered a conservative Democrat who was the only member of his party to be endorsed in 2004 by former conservative Democratic Sen. Zell Miller.
Moore said he agrees the 8th District is close to 5 percentage points more Republican than the district Marshall won previously. "It's a competitive district, but it is by no means as Republican as they are characterizing it."
Perhaps it is not party affiliation but the values of the southern districts in play here that will count most, say observers. The 8th has a strong military presence. Both districts are heavily rural and conservative, contain lots of farming communities and high poverty rates. With the overall trend in Georgia heading Republican, these races are a "toss up," said Peace.
"I think Collins has a shot," said Merle Black, professor of political science for Emory University in Georgia, who called the Republican a "successful grassroots politician" when he was in office.
As for the "Pelosi strategy: "It's been a "wining strategy for Republicans in this district," he said.
But Burns' being able to take back his seat "is a long shot, it's very hard to do," seeing that he was not favored to win the seat in 2002, but the Democratic candidate in that open race had too much baggage to launch a credible campaign.
Still, both seats "are competitive, I think — these are seats the Democrats can't take for granted," Black said. "They are going to have to work to keep these seats."
Democratic backers aren't buying that. Aside from pointing out their candidates' moderate records on everything from tax cuts to supporting a federal amendment defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman — an issue that is scheduled to come before the House of Representatives in July — Barrow's and Marshall's supporters say Republicans are facing a backlash from voters all across the country, even in places like rural Georgia.
"John held a lot of town hall meetings," Lawson said of Barrow. "He's a had a lot of Republicans come up to him who are not happy with the state of affairs in Washington. They are not happy with the national Republican Party and they are concerned that Burns was a rubber stamp for the Republican Party."
Moore noted that voters in the 8th District are still pretty supportive of the Bush administration, but they have "a lot of disillusionment" with Washington, D.C. "They want to see progress," he said, and the Republican-controlled Congress hasn't been delivering.
Collins and Burns have launched aggressive campaigns to thwart their respective opponents. As of the most recent Federal Election Commission filings, Collins has raised $960,000 to Marshall's $977,00 and Burns has raised $985,000 to Barrow's $1.2 million.
"There is no revenge here … revenge is never a motivating factor," said Burns. "It's an issue of representation. There are things we need to change there."