Kurita Looks to Defy the Conventional Wisdom

Posted April 27, 2005 at 6:16pm

Tennessee state Sen. Rosalind Kurita (D) is used to winning tough elections. If she hopes to assume the role of Democratic nominee in the race for the Senate seat being vacated by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R) next year, she will have to win another against Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.).

In 1996, Kurita unseated a Republican incumbent in the state Senate and has twice beaten back GOP challenges in a district northwest of Nashville that President Bush carried with 61 percent in 2004.

Although he has not officially announced his candidacy yet, Ford has made his intentions clear: He plans on running for Senate. After taking over his father’s 9th district seat in 1996, Ford’s name recognition and status within the Democratic Party have steadily increased.

Ford remains the favorite of the national and state Democratic establishment. And in a poll that the Ford campaign released earlier this month, the Congressman boasted a 62 percent to 15 percent advantage over Kurita in a potential primary race.

Kurita’s camp thinks the results are misleading, however.

“He polled 166 likely voters,” Kimberly Wood, Kurita’s spokeswoman argued, “and you can’t poll 166 people from Tennessee and get an accurate result.”

Wood attributes the skewed result to Ford’s better name recognition, admitting that “it’s no surprise to anyone that he’s outdoing her in terms of name identification.”

Without providing many details, Kurita’s camp is touting its own poll. Once voters were given information about both candidates, Kurita led Ford 44 percent to 39 percent, according to the Senator’s poll. Kurita’s campaign would not release the topline numbers, which has led to speculation that her own polls show her trailing in an initial head-to-head matchup with Ford.

One Democratic consultant who has worked on a number of campaigns in Tennessee said he is not surprised Kurita is trailing this early in the campaign.

“He’s Harold Ford, she’s a state Senator and has had no opportunity to run statewide,” the consultant said, adding that “catching up to him in terms of star-power is going to be tough.”

Ford’s high name ID could hurt him in the long run, however. His uncle, state Sen. John Ford (D), has been embroiled in an ethics scandal and is being investigated by a federal grand jury for his financial dealings. John Ford’s legal problems appear to be hurting the Congressman’s campaign. The consultant points to a recent poll that “showed Ford’s negative to positive ratings at a 1.4 to 1 ratio. It makes his electability very questionable.”

John Rowley, Kurita’s media consultant, feels that her strengths will ultimately overcome Ford’s initial advantage in name recognition.

“Her strength in the primary,” Rowley said, “is that she’s electable in the general. She’s in a good place for a Tennessee Democrat ideologically, moderate to conservative, very much in the mold of our [Democratic] governor, Phil Bredesen.”

Wood echoed that sentiment, pointing out that Kurita was endorsed by the National Rifle Association in her previous campaigns. But one consultant thinks it is unlikely that the NRA will inject itself into this Tennessee contest, saying that the group will face “pressure from the White House to stay out of the race” and will likely not endorse many Democrats in tough Senate battles.

Four Republicans are vigorously seeking the GOP nod to replace Frist: Ex-Rep. Ed Bryant, Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, state Rep. Beth Harwell and former Rep. Van Hilleary.

Another group that has endorsed Kurita in the past is EMILY’s List, the organization dedicated to electing Democratic women who support abortion rights. So far, the Washington, D.C.-based group has been noncommittal.

“We are definitely watching the race closely,” EMILY’s List Communications Director Ramona Oliver said, “but at this point I don’t want to speculate on an endorsement.”

Even without the endorsement of a large national organization, Wood remains optimistic about her candidate’s chance of success, noting that Ford’s Memphis political base doesn’t account for much of the primary electorate.

“The makeup of her district is very similar to the state,” Wood said. “When we talk about voters in the primary, 60 percent are females. Strategically, with Memphis only being 10 to 15 percent, we think we’re in very good shape.”

Wood is also impressed by Kurita’s fundraising ability, noting “she is on the phone every single second possible. I was a little surprised, and I’m a fundraiser for a living.”

The campaign hopes to raise in the neighborhood of $3 million for the primary. Kurita will need every penny of it; Ford already has more than $1 million in the bank ready to be unleashed once he officially announces his candidacy.