Small-town politics, Jesse Vaughn's liberal past factors in Matt Barton's 'wild card' win

Staff photo by Doug Strickland / Georgia State House District 5 candidate Matt Barton, right, and his wife Lynne wave to vehicles while standing outside Belmont Baptist Church on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, in Calhoun, Ga. Barton and opponent Jesse Vaughn sought to replace State Rep. John Meadows, who died in November, in Tuesday's special election runoff.

Gordon County (Georgia) Board of Education member Eddie Hall gave Matt Barton advice last month: Walk the aisles of the dollar stores.

Barton, who faced Jesse Vaughn in a special election runoff for the state House District 5 race Tuesday, received significantly less funding. Vaughn also carried more initial support. In a six-candidate special election on Jan. 8, Vaughn finished first with 1,187 votes. Barton came in second with 816 votes.

So, Hall said, Barton needed to collect backers. And the best place to do it is where people shop, particularly on the cheap.

"They're good folks," Hall said of the dollar store clientele. "And they're folks who will tell you what's wrong with the government."

Barton showed up in stores around the district, which covers most of Gordon County and southwestern Murray County. He traveled neighborhoods, knocked on doors, stumped in people's yards. He attended recreational basketball games in the Sonoraville community, shaking hands with parents as their kids clanged shots off the rim.

His strategy was simple, typical of small-town elections. But Barton's sweat equity worked, and he won Tuesday's runoff, 1,712-1,399, according to unofficial results. He will replace state Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, the former House Rules Committee chairman, who died Nov. 13.

"It didn't matter what the other side's money was," Barton said Tuesday night. "I knew what I needed to do. I'm pretty conservative. I don't need more money to waste."

While Barton's side celebrated its work ethic, Vaughn doesn't think the race came down to effort. His team traveled the district and knocked on plenty of doors, too. Vaughn isn't sure what to blame for the 313-vote loss.

"We could do some analysis on that and come up with a hundred different answers," he said Wednesday morning. "It can be any number of things. I don't know if there's any one thing or a multitude of things or 313 things. I don't see much benefit from trying to do a lot of post-game analysis."

On top of earning the most votes in the special election last month, Vaughn also received $60,000 in donations, three times the funds Barton raised. Speaker of the House David Ralston and Meadows' family backed Vaughn.

On Jan. 10, two days after the special election, Barton and Vaughn participated in a forum hosted by the Gordon County Republican Party. Kathleen Thorman, chairwoman of the party, said Vaughn displayed a deeper understanding of policy issues. She said multiple attendees told her after the event that they switched loyalties from Barton to Vaughn.

Scott Tidwell, who finished third in the special election, initially promised to endorse Barton. But after watching the debate, he publicly backed Vaughn. He believed Vaughn would be a more effective representative. Beau Patton, who moderated the event, also said Vaughn was the clear winner.

"That was a wild card," Patton said after Barton's victory. "I did not expect that. I really thought Jesse Vaughn would pull that off."

But Barton attacked Vaughn for his voting record. In 2002, Vaughn ran as a Democrat for a state House seat against Tom Graves, now a U.S. congressman. Vaughn also served as the county's Democratic party chairman. Around the beginning of the year, he explained that he changed parties in the mid-2000s when he felt Democrats were becoming less moderate. Though a decade or two later than most, Vaughn's party switch is a common story in the South.

Larry Massey Jr., who finished fourth in the special election and endorsed Barton, said some believed Vaughn was still not a conservative, even though his voting record shows he has cast ballots in Republican primaries since 2010. Despite Tidwell's endorsement, Massey believes his own voters and Tidwell's voters both swung to Barton on Tuesday. He said the three candidates' supporters were further to the right than Vaughn's.

"People have suspicious minds and conspiracies," Murray County Republican Party Chairman Kevin Jones said. "Once you're one way, you can't turn. But people of the Christian faith should know God redeems us, gives us a second chance."

Said Vaughn: "It just is who I am. I can't change the past. I don't know how long someone has to work in the Republican Party to become trustworthy."

While Vaughn had more money for signs and advertisements, Barton supporters pointed out that only so much funding matters in a small, rural district. People have deep roots here, old friends and plenty of family members. Most voters already know the candidates. The race can come down to who reminds the most supporters that a runoff is actually happening, especially in February.

Patton said Vaughn's support from the party establishment may have hurt him. In addition to Ralston, 14 other current state lawmakers contributed about $30,000 to his campaign.

"In this region of the state, the speaker supporting you is not a good thing," Patton said. "People in this area are not supportive of Speaker Ralston at all. He is not conservative enough for this area. He just won't support religious liberty, which hurts him up here."

Barton will meet with the speaker soon, when he receives committee assignments.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.