Friday, December 16, 2005

The New Republic: How Harold Ford Could Win

Many people have already written off Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and his beleaguered 2008 presidential aspirations. But if the Frist campaign is over before it has even begun, the race to fill Frist's Senate seat, which he will vacate next year, remains wide open. That's because, with three GOP candidates locked in a tough primary, Memphis Democratic Congressman Harold Ford suddenly has a real chance of winning--and becoming the first black senator from the South to be elected since 1874. Indeed, a recent poll by the Ford campaign showed him besting each of his three rivals in head-to-head match-ups. There are a lot of "to be sures" here: Tennessee is a red state, Ford is African American, and Republicans are going to throw everything they've got into keeping Frist's seat in the GOP column. But if Ford pulls out a win, it will be a landmark election--for Democrats and for the country.

Naysayers, such as political commentator Chris Cillizza, discount the Ford campaign because of Tennessee's conservatism. "The problem for Ford is that Tennessee is a Republican state so even though he holds a lead now, the thinking is that undecided voters tend to be GOP-leaning and will eventually line up behind the party's nominee," Cillizza said in a recent Washington Post online chat. But Tennessee conservatism is different from, say, Alabama conservatism. West Tennessee is a culturally conservative place; but the state GOP's roots lie in east Tennessee, where voters going back to the Civil War have held conservative notions about government and the market while eschewing the reactionary cultural and racial politics that have beset other parts of the South. (In 1861 the region even tried to rejoin the Union after the state seceded.) East Tennessee has provided the country with such moderate Republican senators as Howard Baker and Lamar Alexander, and it gave Democratic senators like Al Gore Sr. and Estes Kefauver the political room to support the civil rights movement. And while solidly conservative, it is never a lock for the GOP--many east Tennessee voters crossed party lines in 2002, providing the winning edge for Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen.

East Tennessee's moderation, though balanced out by west Tennessee's staunch conservatism, is important to keep in mind when surveying the traffic jam that is the GOP primary. The three candidates are a pair of arch-conservative former congressmen--Ed Bryant, who lost the 2002 Senate primary to Alexander, and Van Hilleary, who lost to Bredesen--and moderate former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker. Each candidate has an edge: Corker has the most money, Hilleary has an early lead in the polls, and Bryant has a slew of endorsements from right-wing interest groups.

But all of them face the same problem that besets Democrats in national races: The base demands they tilt far from the center, but the general electorate is easily turned off by any whiff of political extremism. All three are grasping for the conservative mantle, and not always politely--Hilleary, for example, has excoriated Corker for playing host, as mayor, to a Tennessee Black Caucus conference (not because of the members' race, but because of their liberal politics). "This is going to be a rough-and-tumble campaign," Bryant recently told the Memphis Commercial-Appeal. Fortunately for Ford, this political dynamic will persist until just a few months before the general election--the primary is on August 3, leaving the winner just three months to rush back to the center.

If Corker wins, Ford will face a difficult, and likely losing, battle. Corker has the backing of popular ex-Senator Fred Thompson, as well as the state's business community. But given his long record as a moderate--he's donated thousands of dollars to state Democratic candidates, and he recently accepted $5,000 from the electricians' union--he's unlikely to pull in enough of the base to best either of his opponents. And if the nominee is Bryant or Hilleary the entire calculus changes in Ford's favor. Both are congenital right-wingers who rode the 1994 Republican revolution into Congress; and, unlike Frist, they can't tack convincingly between moderation and conservatism. Cultural extremism is their political fuel--they simply can't not talk about gay rights and abortion, even when it's to the exclusion of practical concerns like transportation or the deficit. And it's exactly that penchant for immoderation that sank Hilleary's 2002 campaign against Bredesen. (This has been a theme in a number of recent Virginia and North Carolina races as well.)

Ford's best shot would probably be a matchup against Hilleary, who has already lost a statewide general election, has little political achievement to run on, and has a proven record of eschewing policy for demagoguery. And while he talks about being a good ole Tennessee boy, these days he's also a well-connected Washington lobbyist, complete with ties to Jack Abramoff. During his 2002 gubernatorial campaign, he took in $10,000 from two Indian tribes, the Coushutta and the Tigua, who were clients of the indicted lobbyist (Hilleary denies knowing the source of the funds). But any of the three candidates would likely emerge in August in a similar position--tired, overspent, and politically compromised.

Even better, Ford has no serious Democratic opposition, which means he can spend the next eight months doing what he has spent his entire House career doing: emphasizing his moderate credentials. Ford consistently votes with the GOP on matters such as gay marriage and guns; in 2004 he even supported a measure that would strip Washington, D.C. of many of its gun-control provisions. If he can play up these votes, he'll diffuse many of Hilleary and Bryant's talking points.One factor in the Republicans' favor is Frist, the state's best-known Republican. But even here, there are mitigating factors. For one, as it has on the national level, Frist's star has lost some luster among Tennesseans, particularly because he seems to spend more time shuttling between Bush and the Christian Right than promoting the state's interests in Congress. But there's also the question of whether Frist, who still hopes to run for president in 2008, will want to be seen actively campaigning against someone trying to become the first black Southern senator in over a century. What might otherwise have been a hindrance for Ford--the fact that he is black and running in the South--could turn out to be an advantage.

Ford also benefits from Bredesen. The governor still enjoys immense bipartisan support: While some liberals have soured on him since he cut back the state's health care program, he regularly polls close to 60 percent among Republicans. As a result, he has yet to pick up a GOP challenger; one possible opponent even turned down an offer to run because he agreed with Bredesen on most issues. So even if a strawman Republican emerges, Bredesen and the state's Democratic Party can put plenty of energy and money into the Ford race.

Despite these advantages, Ford will still face a tough general election. Distinctions among its various regions aside, Tennessee is a conservative state, and it would be wrong for anyone to view Ford as a lock. But it would be equally wrong for national observers to dismiss the race as already lost.

In addition to other benefits, a win would provide strong momentum for a revived Tennessee Democratic Party in 2008, possibly putting the state in play for the presidency. And even if Tennessee is unlikely to turn blue anytime soon, Ford's decent odds should give Democrats hope that it might turn a little more purple next November.

CLAY RISEN is an assistant editor at TNR.

Source: The New Republic