Long Odds, ’04 Results Fail to Discourage Ford’s Senate Bid

Posted March 9, 2005 at 2:35pm

Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) hasn’t yet formally announced his candidacy for the Senate. But he recently acknowledged at the NAACP’s Freedom Dinner in Tennessee that he intends to run next year, and he told me the same thing last week. [IMGCAP(1)]

While the five-term Democrat from Memphis has the kind of political assets that most candidates only dream of, he faces a steep climb in next year’s Tennessee open Senate race. To his credit, the Congressman acknowledges the daunting challenge — but he also notes, quite rightly, that there may be no better time in the near future for him to make a Senate run.

Harold Ford Jr. is a smart, articulate, ambitious young man who grew up in politics.

His father represented a Memphis-area Congressional district for more than two decades, and the Ford family name is well known in western Tennessee. The current Rep. Ford graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and earned a law degree from the University of Michigan. When his father retired from Congress, Harold Jr. won a three-way primary and the general election to succeed him.

Ford seems to have boundless energy and is always in motion. I half expect to see an interview with him on the Weather Channel whenever it’s storming in Tennessee.

Poised and articulate? You bet. The Congressman has been in the spotlight for so long that it’s probably second nature to him now.

Ambitious? Certainly. He’s a West Tennessean with chutzpah, as demonstrated when he waged an utterly impossible race against California Rep. Nancy Pelosi for the post of House Minority Leader shortly after the 2002 elections. If anything, he’s likely to strike some as overly ambitious.

Ford, a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, has gone out of his way to establish a reputation as a moderate — a necessity in a statewide bid. He voted in favor of authorizing the war in Iraq and against restricting sales at gun shows. His ratings from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are generally higher than those of either the AFL-CIO or the liberal Americans for Democratic Action.

So Ford isn’t just a political wanna-be. He’s an experienced politician who would bring obvious assets to an open-seat Senate race.

While some observers assert that Ford’s biggest problem in a statewide race is his race, that’s probably not the case. I don’t know whether Tennessee “is ready” to elect an African American to the Senate, but the Memphis Democrat has two bigger hurdles to overcome than the color of his skin.

First, while Tennessee’s governor, Phil Bredesen, is a Democrat, and five of the state’s nine House Members are Democrats, the state has been trending Republican for a decade.

Democrats still hold the state House, but Republicans recently took control of the state Senate. The GOP won both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats in 1994, and it has had no trouble holding them since. In an open-seat contest in 2002, former Gov. Lamar Alexander (R) overwhelmed then-Rep. Bob Clement (D), the son of a former governor.

Clement drew only 44 percent in that race, but that was better than the 42 percent that then-Sen. Jim Sasser (D) drew against a politically unknown doctor named Bill Frist (R) in 1994, or the 39 percent that Rep. Jim Cooper (D) drew for a different Senate seat the same year.

While President Bill Clinton (D) carried Tennessee in each of his presidential victories, he did so with only 47 percent in 1992 and 48 percent in 1996. George W. Bush (R) carried the state comfortably with 57 percent last year. Four years earlier, running against Tennessean Al Gore, Bush won the state 51 percent to 47 percent.

Ford’s second problem is different than the first, but it is no less serious. It’s his family in general and his uncle in particular.

State Sen. John Ford (D) is in the local newspapers regularly. There’s the investigation of him by the Senate Ethics Committee. There are the tales of his multiple families. (He lives part-time with his ex-wife, with whom he has three children, and his longtime girlfriend, with whom he has two more children. He is financially responsible for two homes.) And there’s the litany of colorful episodes: allegations of repeated reckless driving, an arrest for shooting a handgun at a truck driver, and questions about spending campaign funds on personal matters.

Even Democrats sympathetic to the Memphis Congressman acknowledge that his uncle is a loose cannon who can damage Ford’s Senate bid.

“John is a big problem. He is fulfilling every stereotype [white] people have about black people,” one backer of the Congressman admitted.

Harold Ford prefers to argue that voters can distinguish between himself and his uncle, and he dismisses suggestions that John Ford will have a major impact on a U.S. Senate race.

Still, the Democrats’ inability to win open-seat Senate contests in the South in the previous cycle is a lesson Ford can’t afford to ignore. If Erskine Bowles (D) couldn’t beat Richard Burr (R) in North Carolina’s 2004 Senate race, and if Chris John (D) couldn’t beat David Vitter (R) in Louisiana’s, how can Ford beat a formidable Republican in Tennessee?

Ford argues that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) won’t be on the ballot in Tennessee next year, and there is no presidential race to define him or his party. Instead, the popular Bredesen will be seeking re-election, and that could actually help Ford.

But even Democrats close to Ford acknowledge that the Tennessee Congressman is an underdog who must run a race that’s both daring and error-free.

Unless Republicans destroy each other or a Democratic wave washes over the Volunteer State, it’s hard to see Ford winning next year. Still, 2006 may be the best chance Ford will ever see. And Ford is not the kind of person anyone should underestimate.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.