John Barrow’s one-of-a-kind ad campaign

October 25, 2012

If Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.) doesn’t win reelection on Nov. 6, it won't be because he didn’t try to set himself apart with a novel ad campaign.

The campaign seeks to reach voters of different political stripes and casts Barrow's congressional tenure in a positive light, even as many other commercials across the country treat Congress like a dirty word.

Barrow’s latest offering: A 30-second ad in which the congressman lists the ways he’s taken a stand against wasteful spending. It’s both serious and light – not a tone that’s easy to strike in campaign ads.

“I voted to eliminate funding for genetic research on grapes,” Barrow says in the commercial. “We already have seedless.”

In effect, Barrow’s team is using a variation of a formula often seen in attack ads lobbed against congressional incumbents. Those commercials often highlight wasteful spending measures and obscure projects the opposing candidate has supported. Barrow turned the approach on its head. 

Congress’s approval rating has reached a historic low, making it difficult for all but the most popular incumbents to tout their record in an appealing way. Barrow’s ad could be a blueprint for how to make Washington seem more palatable to voters who have grown weary of the politicians who populate the nation's capital. 

Barrow’s latest spot, like many of his previous commercials, puts him front and center, letting him make a direct-to-camera appeal. It’s not something every candidate does, let alone well. Barrow’s media team, led by veteran adsmith Steve Murphy, seems convinced it’s a winner, because it keeps churning out similar commercials. 

Barrow is an underdog against Republican Lee Anderson (we recently rated his race as the 10th most likely to flip party control). To win, the Democrat needs to attract support from both conservative white voters and liberal African-Americans voters. A recent ad in which Barrow says "Long before I was born, my grandfather used this little Smith & Wesson here to help stop a lynching,” stood out because it appeared aimed at both. 

Barrow can’t alienate the left by slamming Obama constantly, nor can he afford to enrage the right by fully embracing the president. So he released an ad earlier this year in which he identified areas where he agrees with the president, and issues over which he takes issue with the White House.

Barrow’s ads may not be enough to propel him to victory. But in a cycle where so many campaign commercials have so closely resembled other efforts, the Democrat’s ads stand out. 

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Sean Sullivan · October 25, 2012