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Republicans target Democrats in conservative districts

Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.) is a member of a dying breed -- he's one of just nine Democrats to represent a congressional district that President Barack Obama lost in 2012.

In fact, Mitt Romney carried Barrow’s Georgia district with more than 55 percent of the vote last year, and John McCain did the same four years earlier.

But as Republicans seek to maintain control of the U.S. House in 2014, Republicans are hoping to make Barrow, who is running for a fifth term, and his fellow conservative-leaning Democrats completely extinct.

“The district is in the conservative to very conservative range, though on social issues it would definitely be considered very conservative,” said Lawton Sack, chairman of the Georgia Republican Party in that district. “We have very active Tea Party and Liberty groups throughout the district as well, so fiscal and constitutional issues are fairly important.”

Indeed, as NBC’s Jessica Taylor recently reported, the National Republican Congressional Committee has started a new initiative -- “Red Zone” -- that dedicates staff and resources to defeat Democrats like Barrow who represent conservative-leaning districts.

How have Barrow and these other Democrats -- like Utah’s Jim Matheson, Minnesota’s Collin Peterson and West Virginia’s Nick Rahall -- survived so far?

One explanation, Republican strategists say, is these politicians’ skills.  

“My guess is, by and large, the politicians who have been elected in these districts have understood the feel of them and been able to temper their ideology,” said Tom Rath, who has served as a senior advisor to several Republican presidential campaigns. “They get it. They do a lot of work in terms of communication and interaction.”

In particular, Sack of the Georgia Republican Party says Barrow has nailed his advertising, citing one TV ad Barrow aired in 2012 that boasted his opposition to gun control.

In the spot, Barrow displayed several guns from his family’s personal collection, saying, “I approve this message because these are my guns now, and ain’t nobody gonna take ‘em away.”

“I have had several conservative Republicans say to me that Barrow is not that bad and that he is really a conservative Democrat,” Sack added. “Time after time, I overheard people repeating things that Barrow said in his ads. They really seem to resonate with voters.”

Another advantage Democrats like Barrow have had: their GOP opposition.

In Georgia, Sack explains, Republicans had a field of candidates running to unseat Barrow, which took up time and resources that could have devoted to defeating the Democratic congressman. The last Republican standing after the 2012 GOP primary, Lee Anderson, had the fatal political flaw of being a poor public speaker, Sack says.

“He was wonderful one-on-one, but he could not speak publicly. He also refused to debate John Barrow, which was both a wise and poor decision,” he said. “Barrow would have beaten him solidly, but his refusal to debate painted Anderson as being scared of him.”

The Cook Political Report notes GOP recruitment problems in four of the other of these “Red Zone” districts.

Despite being unable to defeat Barrow and other Democrats from conservative-leaning districts, Republicans believe they have an important edge looking ahead to 2014 -- redistricting.

“They got redistricted, the effect of which was to make these districts even more competitive for Republicans to take a shot,” said Alex Vogel, a Republican strategist. 

Annie Kelly, director of the NRCC’s “Red Zone” effort, believes that just because these Democrats survived in 2012, doesn’t mean they’ll win in future contests.

“Sometimes it takes a couple of cycles to get these entrenched incumbents to a point where they can be beaten,” she said.