ALBANY, Ga. (AP) — After coasting to re-election in recent years in a swing district, Democratic Rep. Sanford Bishop is facing an aggressive, well-funded GOP challenger who is trying to capitalize on several recent flaps and Bishop's support for much of President Obama's agenda.
The nine-term lawmaker faces Republican Mike Keown, a conservative state legislator, Baptist minister and former mayor who has criticized Bishop for giving charity scholarships to his relatives and for a Bishop staffer's obscene phone call to a local farmer.
Those issues, coupled with a concerted push by Republicans and tea party activists nationally, mean a seat long considered safe for Bishop may prove competitive.
In an e-mail to campaign supporters Wednesday, Bishop said Republicans "will stop short of nothing to tear me down and destroy my record of delivering for the people of the 2nd district of Georgia."
Keown is also seizing on Bishop's votes for President Barack Obama's health care overhaul and economic stimulus package — both unpopular in rural Georgia — to try to draw votes from a Democratic lawmaker who veers right on social issues such as gay marriage and gun rights. Bishop has said the votes helped his district.
"I think this probably is one of the more competitive races down here in a while," said David Lanoue, a political scientist and dean at Columbus State University in Bishop's district. "The odds are pretty good that Congressman Bishop will win, but the wild card is that this is not a normal year."
Bishop's district in southwest Georgia starts at Columbus and extends south, with the Chattahooche River as its western border. It sweeps east along the Florida border, then runs back toward Atlanta, largely following Interstate 75 and taking in Jimmy Carter's home of Plains. Between its cities is former plantation land where farmers now grow cotton, peanuts, tobacco and peaches.
The 2nd district has nearly an equal number of blacks and whites, and has gone for Democratic and Republican presidential candidates.
Obama won with 54 percent of the vote in 2008. Before that, George W. Bush carried the district in 2004 and in 2000.
For his part, Bishop has maintained a winning coalition of urban blacks, moderate whites and rural voters, particularly farmers. He's won every election since 2004 with more than 60 percent of the vote and ran unopposed in 2002.
Bishop co-chaired Obama's campaign in Georgia, but is known as one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress.
A lawyer first elected in 1992, Bishop has courted rural farmers by being a reliable ally in Congress when federal agencies debated limiting peanuts on airplanes and reducing federal agriculture subsidies. He also has fought for farmer interests in ongoing water disputes over the Chattahoochee River.
"He decides things from both sides of the aisle," said Christine Alligood, 91, of Albany, who considers herself an independent voter. "He's not really a Democrat or Republican."
Bishop, 63, sits on the House Appropriations Committee, which parcels out huge pools of federal money, and touts his ability to secure money for charities, youth programs, farmers and the military base at Fort Benning, a major employer.
"Politics is all about who gets what, when and how," Bishop recently told an Alany audience, according to The Albany Herald.
Bishop did not respond to multiple requests for a phone interview for this article.
A former mayor of Coolidge, a town of fewer than 600 people, the 56-year-old Keown describes himself on his Web site as "a Christian, pro-life, pro-family, pro-second amendment, pro-military" candidate who believes in less government and lower taxes.
Keown raised more than Bishop during the second quarter, although the Democrat has raised more during the entire election cycle. By the end of June, Bishop had roughly $405,000 in cash on hand compared to nearly $238,000 for Keown.
Keown has hammered Bishop on two matters.
Last spring, Bishop reprimanded his agricultural specialist, James Crozier, for leaving an obscene voicemail with a local farmer, Edward Wilkins, and suggesting he would no longer help Wilkins get federal agriculture loans. Crozier said he reacted angrily after Wilkins, who is white, used a racial slur to refer to Bishop, who is black. Wilkins has denied using racist language.
Keown, who is white, said the Bishop staffer should have been fired.
Next came news that Bishop awarded scholarships from the nonprofit Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to his stepdaughter, his niece and others connected to his congressional office or with ties to the office of Bishop's wife Vivian, a municipal court clerk in Columbus.
"Even if it wasn't illegal, it was very much unethical," Keown said in an interview. "I mean, if someone has to tell you to not funnel scholarship money to your own family members, then it makes me question how you make decisions or other judgments about other things."
Bishop reimbursed the foundation for the scholarships to his stepdaughter and niece though he said he followed foundation rules.
On policy, Keown said he would vote to repeal the health care overhaul and oppose any move to tax carbon emissions or create a cap-and-trade system. The Republican said such a tax would hurt rural farmers.
He blames Democrats for deficit spending and scorns Obama's $787 billion stimulus program, passed in 2009 to help revive a faltering economy.
"Their answer to everything seems to be, throw more money at it," Keown said.
However, this didn't stop Keown for voting for a state budget that contained big injections of federal stimulus funding.
"We were balancing the budget — sometimes you do the best you can," he said.
National issues like health care cut both ways in the race. Bishop predicted as much in March when he voted for the legislation, telling reporters that his district was split.
While Bishop said the bill was imperfect, he said it would increase funding for community health centers, help seniors afford prescription drugs and make sure people with pre-existing conditions get coverage.
Bishop said at the time of the vote that it would "have a significant impact on improving the lives of Southwest Georgians now and into the future."
The incumbent's vote in support of Obama's health care plan sealed the decision of Eric Newman, 47, of Albany to vote for Keown. Newman generally votes Republican and believes that turnover is healthy in Congress, regardless of party.
"I remember the day they had the vote last spring," Newman said, speaking of the health care vote. "I went out and put a Keown sign in my yard that day."
The opposite was true for Charles Leggett, 51, of Columbus. He plans to vote for Bishop and supports Obama's health care plan. He works as a maintenance technician and lacks health coverage.
"I can't afford it," he said. "I mean, insurance would take over half my check. I mean, I can't even pay my bills if I had insurance."