Jim Barksdale’s headfirst plunge into politics after a career in the financial world hasn’t been a smooth transition.
The Georgia Democratic Senate candidate “has run one of the strangest campaigns I’ve ever seen,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “Limited advertising. He doesn’t seem to be out on the stump much. He seems a little bit invisible.”
Those are not good descriptors for a soft-spoken political novice already struggling with limited name recognition.
Although it’s easy in politics to mistake activity for productivity, Democratic strategist Howard Franklin of Atlanta said Barksdale would be wise to raise his profile in urban areas where blacks, Hispanics and other likely Democratic voters hold sway.
“I think a lot of people would be more comfortable if there was more activity on Barksdale’s part,” Franklin said. “That’s just what we’re used to seeing.”
Still, as Georgia’s Senate campaign enters the homestretch, Barksdale finds himself within 6 points of his opponent, incumbent Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, according to a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll.
And their race might tighten if Hillary Clinton pours more resources into the newly competitive Peach State and disaffected GOP voters shun down-ballot Republican candidates because of Donald Trump’s divisive campaign.
Since many voters don’t pay attention to state races until after Labor Day, Barksdale’s slow start may not keep him from mounting the final charge that he says is coming the last two months of the campaign.
“I’m relatively unknown in Georgia, so to be within single digits at this point tells you how much people want to have change,” Barksdale said during a one-on-one interview before a recent campaign event in Newnan. “The fact that we are that close means that as we roll out our field campaign, as we get our volunteers on the phones, as we begin our canvassing, as we continue to have media interviews like this – my name recognition and my message are going to go up and I think the race is going to tighten a lot further.”
I’m relatively unknown in Georgia, so to be within single digits at this point tells you how much people want to have change.
Jim Barksdale, Senate candidate
Barksdale beat out an underwhelming group of Democratic primary opponents after better-known candidates chose to sit out the race, perhaps eying open-seat gubernatorial runs in 2018. But that caution was turned on its head when Trump won the Republican presidential nomination and turned Georgia into a state that appears up for grabs.
“The Democrats might be thinking at this point that they should have nominated someone who had elective office-holding experience and was a seasoned politico, so to speak,” said Trey Hood, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.
Most observers see Isakson as the strong favorite due to his name recognition, deep campaign pockets and support from prominent Democrats like former Gov. Roy Barnes, former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn and Rep. David Scott of Atlanta.
Barksdale’s challenge, Franklin said, will be to translate his personal history and career – the pragmatic business leader who cares about the little guy – into a set of issues that voters care about.
Barksdale has tried to stake out his turf as a progressive outsider, a non-politician, a hat-wearing crusader out to make Washington work for the people.
“Our slogan has been that ‘It’s time for somebody to stand up against the Washington crowd’ that keeps passing laws that favor profit over people,” Barksdale said.
“The big-money corporate interests have been able to get politicians to do their bidding. Whether it was the deregulation of Wall Street that took us off the cliff or the trade bills that have hurt incomes or the desires to privatize Social Security,” Barksdale said. “All of these are things that our politicians are not willing to stand up against.”
The big money corporate interests have been able to get politicians to do their bidding.
Barksdale opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which has become a symbol of opposition to globalization and is also opposed by both presidential candidates. He supports expanding Medicaid, revising campaign finance, raising the minimum wage and creating a path to citizenship for migrants in this country.
He also urges continued support for Israel but isn’t shy about his “realistic position” that Israeli settlements in the West Bank should stop.
“When you are expanding settlements with someone you’re trying to reconcile with, you are not going to make progress,” Barksdale said.
His now-familiar gray cap – copies of which he sells on his website for $100 – has become his calling card.
“It’s sort of a symbol that I’m willing to be a little different. And that I’m not a politician and I don’t need to follow the crowd or fit into the crowd,” he explained.
Born in Macon to a dentist father and Sunday school teacher mother, Barksdale attended public schools in Atlanta and earned his undergraduate degree from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, before getting his MBA from the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania.
After corporate jobs in Europe, he returned to Atlanta in 1986 and started his own investment advisory firm, Equity Investment Corp., a risk-averse company with more than $5 billion in assets under management.
That background probably hasn’t prepared him for the shoe-leather reality of politics, Duffy said.
“It’s very different. I’m sure he was not quite prepared,” Duffy said. “There are no boardrooms here. But there’re a lot of Waffle Houses.”
Barksdale has already poured $3 million into his campaign and has only recently turned up his fundraising activities. He’s not accepting any corporate money and he doesn’t expect to match Isakson’s sizable war chest.
“The big corporate interests are always going to favor the incumbent,” he said.
In a year that Democrats are trying to win back the Senate, Franklin said Barksdale’s ability to self-fund his campaign could help him secure additional resources from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
“He does himself a favor by being be able to say ‘I can match’ or ‘I can ensure that these dollars won’t be wasted in a quixotic campaign,’ ” Franklin said.
But Duffy said Barksdale would prove a tough sell for Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee bean counters who thought they didn’t necessarily need Georgia to win back the Senate.
“There’s a long line (of candidates in other states) ahead of Barksdale,” Duffy said. “Whatever he does here, he’s going to have to write the check.”
For Barksdale to win, he’ll have to count on a sizable Trump drag on downstream races, large minority turnout fueled by Clinton’s newfound Georgia interest and strong support from white suburban women who’ve turned their backs on Trump.
“I have a very hard time coming up with a path to victory for him,” Duffy said.
Barksdale is undeterred. He has challenged Isakson to six debates on the economy in six Georgia cities. Both campaigns have discussed the possibility, he said, but nothing has materialized.
As more polls find Clinton leading Trump in Georgia, Barksdale is hoping the state’s growing population of Democratic-leaning minority voters will provide the lift he needs.
“If turnout was stronger, Georgia would have been blue already,” Barksdale said. “The people are ready for new leadership.”
Born: Macon, Ga.
Education: College of William and Mary; MBA, Wharton School
Profession: Asset management
Political party: Democrat