There was former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.), all over the national airwaves last week, breaking the hearts of Tennessee Democrats.
“I don’t have any plans to run against Lamar Alexander,” Ford told CNN, referring to the popular Republican Senator who is up for a second term in 2008.
Even most Democrats concede that Alexander, a former two-term governor and U.S. secretary of Education with more than 40 years on the Volunteer State political scene, will be difficult to beat.
But surprisingly, the list of possible challengers to Alexander does not begin and end with Ford, the charismatic young Memphis Democrat who lost the 2006 Senate election by 3 points and whose future — on the national stage and at home — remains very bright.
Ask Tennessee Democrats about their rising political stars and they are able to identify a few prominent figures who could run for Senate in 2008 — or for governor in 2010 or for a House seat whenever a rare vacancy occurs next.
The list begins with Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell (D), whose eight-year tenure in City Hall comes to an end in September.
“A lot of people are interested to see what his next move will be,” said one Tennessee Democratic insider.
Purcell is an attorney and former state House Majority Leader who also could take a look at the 2010 open-seat gubernatorial race, though Ford and Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.) may be in the mix then as well.
Matt Kuhn, the chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party in Western Tennessee and a seasoned political operative who managed Purcell’s first mayoral campaign, said the mayor “is very methodical” and likely would give himself plenty of lead time before jumping into another race.
No matter what he does, the crowded, competitive election to replace Purcell will be the political highlight of 2007 in Tennessee. Candidates in the nonpartisan City Hall contest include former Rep. Bob Clement (D), who lost to Alexander in the 2002 Senate race, and Vice Mayor Howard Gentry, the highest-ranking black official in the Nashville area and a popular local sportscaster.
Looking beyond 2007 to the Senate race with Alexander, Bob Tuke, a politically wired Nashville lawyer and Vietnam War veteran who just completed a stint as a highly visible state Democratic chairman, is talked about as a possible challenger. So is state Sen. Rosalind Kurita (D), who began running for the Senate last year but deferred to Ford in the Democratic primary.
For years, some Tennessee Democrats have argued that Kurita, who represents a district in North Central Tennessee, has just the right profile to do well in a statewide election. The problem for her has been raising money — and convincing enough of the party’s liberal interest groups to back her in a primary.
“She’s a gun-toting woman from the country, but she’s also a nurse,” said Mike Kopp, a veteran Tennessee Democratic strategist who is now a partner at a Nashville marketing firm. “Pretty compassionate.”