GAINESVILLE, Ga. — Georgia's newest congressman is positioning himself among the most conservative House members working to rein in the federal government, even if that means voting against a ban on selling videos of women crushing animals with high-heeled shoes.
Rep. Tom Graves, who was sworn in June 14 after a special election, says he's sticking to his ideals of keeping the federal government out of concerns best left to the states.
But the Republican freshman still has one more election to win next week before he can keep his north Georgia seat beyond 2010. And two House votes Graves cast since the July 20 primary, including his vote against outlawing sales of animal-crushing videos, have drawn attacks from his opponent in Tuesday's Republican runoff.
"I see philosophical differences between myself and Washington every day," Graves said in an interview. "I'm going to err on the side of the Constitution each and every time."
Graves' opponent, Gainesville dentist Lee Hawkins, has been hammering the front-runner in their three-week runoff race over the pair of votes that he says shows Graves taking limited government to extremes that ignore commonsense morals.
On July 21, Graves of Ranger was among just three House members who voted against banning interstate sales of so-called "crush videos," fetish films that show women killing mice, rabbits, even kittens by crushing them with their feet. The other "no" votes were cast by Republican Reps. Ron Paul of Texas and Paul Broun of Athens.
The next day, July 22, Graves voted "no" on a measure to give organizations such as the YMCA and others groups working with children easier access to federal background checks to screen job applicants for criminal records. Only three other House members joined Graves' dissent — Paul, Broun and Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona.
Graves stands by both votes. He noted all 50 states already have laws on their books against cruelty to animals, and said states are already equipped to check the criminal backgrounds of people applying to work with children.
"I didn't get elected to go with the status quo," said Graves, who has cast more than 140 House votes overall since mid-June. "I'm not voting today to determine whether or not I'll be re-elected. I vote each and every day as if I'm not coming back."
But Hawkins is using those votes as fodder for attacks. After Graves' vote against the animal video ban, Hawkins posted a response on his website with a photo of himself with the family dog, a German shorthair named Sister, in his lap.
"He's using extreme political ideology to vote against conservative, Christian values and common sense," Hawkins said in an interview. "If you can't vote to protect children and can't vote to protect innocent animals, I think your moral compass is pointing in the opposite direction of average people."
The two Republicans are battling to replace Republican Nathan Deal, who vacated his 9th District seat to run for governor. The district, which hugs Georgia's northwest corner, is perhaps the most conservative in the state. Republican John McCain got 75 percent of the vote here in the 2008 presidential campaign.
Graves and Hawkins have been locked in a grueling series of elections since May, when they were the top finishers in an eight-way special election. Graves won a June runoff, giving him the seat through the end of 2010. Still, his newfound incumbency didn't stop Hawkins from forcing a runoff in the July primary, in which five GOP candidates shared the ballot.
A fourth election Tuesday should seal things. No Democrats are seeking Deal's old seat.
Hawkins acknowledges a lack of campaign cash has limited his ability to spread word of Graves' recent House votes throughout the district. While his campaign reported $267,400 in the bank July 21, it also had debt exceeding $240,000.
Voters in Graves' district interviewed by The Associated Press said they weren't aware of his votes.
Randy Goff, 55, of Flowery Branch said he wants the district's congressman to have "strong Christian principles" and was curious to find out more about Graves' recent record.
"Why would he vote like that?" said Goff, a phone company worker who voted for Hawkins in the primary.
Rene Stover of Ellijay, a 67-year-old electronics technician, said he's still trying to make up his mind which candidate to support after voting for the third-place finisher, Steve Tarvin, in the primary.
But Stover, who's active in the Gilmer County tea party, said he was impressed with Graves' position.
"I'm all for protecting animals and protecting children especially, but I think Graves was right in what he did," Stover said. "Because if you deviate from one part of the Constitution, you're going to start eroding the rest of it."