Friday, January 06, 2006

Harold Ford Jr. -- Underrated?

Is it possible that Tennessee Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr., who has been touted as a potential presidential candidate by the likes of Michael Barone, is actually being underestimated in his current race for the Senate?

In short, yes.

Ford, who is seeking the open seat of Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) in 2006, has so far flown under the radar among national strategists and observers, but has run a surprisingly strong campaign to date.
On the fundraising front -- a key element of any winning formula for a statewide race -- Ford has performed remarkably well. From Oct. 1 through Dec. 31, he raised better than $1 million for his bid, a haul that ups his total raised for the race to $4.25 million. Ford's campaign would not release his cash on hand total through the end of 2005 (a slight annoyance) but as of Sept. 30 he had $1.75 million in the bank -- an impressive sum. His strong fundraising has helped to effectively marginalize the potentially troublesome candidacy of state Sen. Rosalind Kurita (D), who is challenging Ford in the primary.

Ford's cash position at the end of September was better than two of his three potential Republican opponents: Former Reps. Van Hilleary ($842,000 on hand) and Ed Byrant ($714,000). Former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker leads the entire field by a wide margin with $3.2 million on hand.

While his detractors -- including Kurita and Corker -- note that approximately 40 percent of Ford's contributions come from donors outside of Tennessee, the source of contributions rarely becomes a major issue in a race; voters have shown time and time again they are not overly concerned about how campaigns are funded.

Ford has also worked to beef up his foreign policy bona fides by making repeated trips to Iraq and Afghanistan since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Ford is leaving today for a series of meetings in that region of the world, a journey that will include a sitdown with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and stops in Iraq and Pakistan. Ford ran a television ad statewide over July 4th highlighting his trips. "A few weeks ago, I returned from my third trip to the Middle East, once again reminding me that in war there are no Democrats or Republicans, just Americans," he said. The ad made no mention of his Senate campaign. A second spot focuses on Ford's domestic priorities.

While Ford deserves kudos for the campaign he has run thus far, it has not been without bumps. For instance, he recently swapped out his entire consulting team, bringing in Jim Margolis of GMMB as his media consultant and Pete Brodnitz of the Benenson Strategy Group as his pollster. Such a wholesale change is never good news but better to clean house now than in September.

And, looming over Ford's entire campaign is the specter of his uncle -- former state Sen. John Ford (D). Ford resigned his state Senate seat shortly after being caught accepting bribes in a FBI sting operation -- code named "Tennessee Waltz." John Ford's trial is set to begin on May 6.

Despite these problems, Ford has persevered and now appears to be in a position to benefit from a national political climate that is tilting toward Democrats. The Tennessee race remains a difficult pickup for Democrats but Ford's surprisingly solid candidacy has given the party a legitimate chance.

Comments: This peice once again reaffirms what this blog and other experts have been saying for months: Harold Ford Jr. is for real! (1, 2, 3, 4)

That notion is catching on around Tennessee and the nation very quickly.

Update: The Fix once again has some very nice things to say about the Ford campaign today:

"Keep an eye on Tennessee's open-seat race where Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D) has impressed..."

"As noted yesterday in The Fix, Harold Ford Jr. is running a very sound campaign. His $1 million raised in the final three months of 2005 is an impressive take, and Ford's boast that he will raise and spend $12 million on the race no longer seems all that far-fetched."

Source: The Fix, Washington Post