Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Tennessee U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

October 3, 2006
35 Days Until Election Day

Tennessee U.S. Senate

Status: Republican Open
2004 Presidential Result: Red State (South)

Outlook: Leans Republican

To the surprise of many, the U.S. Senate contest in the Volunteer State has heated up over the past few weeks to become one of the closest and most scrutinized elections in the country. In an extremely interesting contest which has taken several twists and turns, an intriguing Democrat candidate appears poised to come from behind and possibly win an election in a Republican friendly state. However, the race is still close and the significant among of undecided voters may prove likely to favor his Republican opponent, and thus keep the seat for the GOP.

The last time a Democrat won a U.S. Senate election in Tennessee was 1990, when Senator Al Gore defeated token opposition. After Gore became Vice President, both of the state’s Senate seats switched to the Republicans in the 1994 midterm election which propelled a one-time dark horse candidate, surgeon Bill Frist to Washington D.C. in one of that year’s biggest political surprises. Frist would go on to rise all the way up to the office of Senate Majority Leader during his two terms in office and despite of that powerful position, he has decided to abide by a term limits pledge and is not seeking reelection this year. While Frist likely could have easily been reelected, a move away from the Beltway and the demands of running the Senate was probably a necessary move, if Frist has any hope of being elected President in 2008. Therefore, the stage was set for a competitive open seat election.

The Democrat nominee is Congressman Harold Ford Jr., an incredibly ambitious man, even for politician standards, who is also regarded as a very talented political commodity. Ford, whose father held a seat in Congress, since the current Congressman was a young child, succeeded his father in office in 1996, when he was fresh out of law school. Now at age 36, Ford is making a long expected foray into running for the U.S. Senate, a move he first seriously considered making four years ago. Later on that year, he also attempted a long-shot bid to become his party’s Congressional leader but was easily defeated by Nancy Pelosi.

Ford’s personal and political pedigree has both strengths and drawbacks in the context of a statewide race. While Tennessee is seen as a reliably conservative state, Ford does not have a reputation for being a far-left liberal. He is in fact, one of the most moderate members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Some, even have felt at times that Ford is too conservative of a Democrat and might have a hard time gaining the support of white liberals in that state, although that does not seem to be the case. While it looked like Ford would have to fight for the Senate nomination, his one opponent dropped out of the race several months before the primary, allowing Ford a free path to the general election, which was a turn of events greatly in his favor.

In discussing Ford’s political prospects, the topic of race, in a southern state like Tennessee is often mentioned. Some believe that many white voters, who would otherwise be willing to vote for a white Democrat, would be unwilling to support the African-American Ford. While that possibility cannot be overlooked, it appears that potential problems for Ford among the Tennessee electorate might be more complex. For starters, he hails from heavily Democrat and urban Memphis, which has a very different cultural identity from the rest of Tennessee, especially the rural areas. The Ford Family has been a political force in Memphis for decades, often with the stain of corruption surrounding them. Numerous elected Fords have faced legal troubles, including Congressman Harold Ford Sr., who was once under federal indictment. Currently, other relatives of Congressman Ford Jr. are under serious legal and ethical clouds in matters that are very much in the news in Tennessee. The challenge for the Democrat candidate in this race is to not fall into the guilt by association category in which the behavior of his very colorful relatives could harm him. Furthermore, the Fords have gained some powerful enemies in Memphis Democrat politics among other African-American politicians, which means that Ford probably cannot count on monolith support from his home base, although he will score extremely well among the state’s African-American population.

Ford’s political moderation probably helps him transcend the racial issue to an extent and gives him some credibility that other Democrats in a place like Tennessee might not have, but the Memphis identity might turn out to be something that is harder for Ford to overcome. The Congressman has a reputation for enjoying the finer things in life and is undeniably smooth and urbane in his personal style and manner, which might not transcend well in a state where most successful Democrats have been able to cultivate an image of being more down-home and “country.” Ford, who is considered a very eligible bachelor in Washington D.C., might also need to overcome the belief that some might have that he is perhaps too young, too ambitious, and untested in the world beyond politics, as he has never held any sort of job in the private sector. Despite all these potential drawbacks though, Ford’s strong political skills and an effective campaign since the primaries have him well in the game.

As for the Republicans, the path to the nomination was far less smooth. The GOP field included three main contenders, all of which had were former elected officials, but all three of which had failed in statewide bids for higher office. Two conservatives, former Congressmen Van Hilleary, who had narrowly lost the state’s Governorship in 2002, and Ed Bryant, who lost a Republican Senate primary that year to a much more well-known opponent, who ran with national backing, split the conservative vote and allowed an opening for a more moderate candidate to win the nomination. Wealthy businessman Bob Corker, who had served as the Mayor of Chattanooga, had lost to Frist in a 1994 Senate primary, but twelve years later was able to capture his party’s nod in large part because of the personal funds he invested in the race and the fact that Hilleary and Bryant in effect cancelled each other out. The supporters of Corker’s opponents took the position that Tennessee was a Republican enough state that the electablity of a moderate candidate should not have been a factor, as any Republican should be expected to win. Corker did take steps in this year’s primary though to make him more acceptable to conservatives on issues such as abortion, compared to the positions he had taken earlier in this career. While the three-way primary was very negative and at times personal, Corker won by a pretty impressive margin, indicating the potential for a perhaps easy victory in November, as Corker’s reputation for not being overly ideological seemed to indicate that he could count on a good deal of crossover votes from Democrats.

National Republicans were relieved when Bryant and Hilleary announced their unequivocal support for Corker’s election on the night of the primary, but after all the attacks those two candidates leveled against him in that contest, some of the supporters of those two more conservative candidates do not appear to have fallen in line as quickly behind the Republican nominee. In order to win the election, Corker will need to shore up support for those in the conservative base of his party who did not vote for him in the primary and still appear to be lukewarm towards his candidacy. With the potential balance of power of the U.S. Senate on line, (and appearing more so in recent weeks), Corker might have some reason to expect that those folks will eventually decide to vote for him.

In the meantime though, the Corker campaign, which impressed so many with their strong primary showing, has widely been seen as being lackluster in the pivot to the general election campaign and as having lost a good deal of momentum. Polls that before the primary had shown Corker holding a double-digit lead over Ford in some cases now show a much closer race. The most recent batch of polling ranges from a narrow one point lead for Corker, to as much as a five point lead for Ford. If Election Day were five weeks early, it would appear to be an absolute tossup as to who would win, in a race that many Republicans and Democrats alike had considered pretty uphill for the party which did not hold the seat.

Ford has scored points against Corker through television advertisement that attacks Corker for his record as Mayor and also for allegedly looking the other way while his business hired illegal immigrants. On that issue, Ford has attempted to run to the right of his Republican opponent and has been highly praised for his skills on the campaign trail and for effective paid political advertisements. The Corker campaign has thus so far been somewhat ineffective at fighting back or in defining Ford, but in the past few days, there has been a shakeup in the top levels of the campaign. Such a move is typically not a good sign this close to Election Day, but Corker supporters are optimistic that this fresh blood will help rejuvenate the campaign in the final weeks.

Looking at the polls, which have been disappointing as of late to Republicans, there might be a legitimate reason for optimism though for the GOP. While Ford has made up a good deal of political ground, the contest does still seem to have a somewhat high number of undecided voters. Examining the internals of those polls appears to show that those voters might be more likely to support Corker when all is said and done, as white Republicans and independents seem to have far more undecided voters among their ranks than Democrats. Those Republican undecided voters, which one polls shows are twice as many as undecided Democrats are most likely people who think that Corker might not be conservative enough and thus would be somewhat unlikely to actually vote for a Democrat. That poll from Mason-Dixon, which was released this weekend showing a statistically insignificant one- point lead for Ford, shows that 23 percent of self described independents have yet to make up their minds. Among those independents that have decided though, Corker holds a ten-point lead. Therefore, it appears that the remaining vote might be expected to break his way. If the Corker campaign can get a degree of momentum back, it should probably be able to get many of those voters on Election Day, and Corker’s ability to write checks for his campaign will certainly help get the message out. The Rasmussen Reports poll, which has Ford up by five points overall, does show him performing better than the surveys do among unaffiliated voters but that poll is the only independent one to show Ford with that sort of lead.

The Mason-Dixon poll also shows that 15 percent of white voters have yet to make a final decision, but among those who have, Corker holds a 14-point lead. There has been talk this year that due to racial factors, the actual Election Day totals for the African-American Republicans and Democrats such as Ford, will actually prove to be significantly less than polling data shows them getting. While such a phenomena does not appear to have borne itself out in the races for the last African-American U.S. Senator to run against white opponents, or in primary elections for statewide office in both parties over the past two election cycles, if it does prove to be true in this year’s general election, Ford could have a tougher night than many now anticipate.

The Democrat candidate, who gave up a safe seat in the House of Representatives, where he had considerable growth potential with building seniority, is likely to come out of this gamble on a U.S. Senate race with a good deal of political respect for the way he has managed to make the most out of the circumstance. Still, it is going to be tough for Ford to actually win, unless he can do something to appeal to the swath of undecided voters, who the polls show might be too much of a challenge for him to get.

Corker’s general election campaign up to this point has left much to be desired, and some now wonder if he was not actually the strongest possible GOP nominee after all. This seat should have been easier for a Republican to hold, but Corker should probably still be considered a somewhat slight favorite. Ford has run a strong campaign, but he might have peaked too soon, as conservative minded voters in the suburbs and rural areas of the state might just not be willing to vote for a Democrat from Memphis, no matter how Blue Dog he may be, especially if Ted Kennedy could possibly wind up as a Committee chairman as an end result.

Corker campaign link:


2006 Senate races predicted thus far: 15 D, 10 R
Post-election Senate balance of power predicted thus far: 42 D, 50 R