Monday, February 21, 2005

The Tennessee Senate 2006 Race

[It's a Hobbslide! Welcome Bill Hobbs readers. You might also enjoy this look at Ford's recent image makeover.]

It's an unfortunate fact of the race to fill the Tennessee Senate seat for retiring Bill Frist that Tennesseans will be deluged, smothered, with stories about Representative Harold Ford, Jr. He has nearly no chance of winning, barring a surprise screw-up which, with Tennessee Republicans, should never be discounted. After all, even with a majority in the State Senate they still couldn't elect one of their own as Lt. Governor. But Ford has two facts on his side. He has a national presence and reputation, which (like Frist) makes him the subject of lots of "hometown boy makes good" stories. And, he's a Democrat. The state's newspapers are still filled with unbending Democratic editorialists and reporters who view Ford as their next great hope in stemming Tennessee's still-rising Republican tide. It matters not at all how the Republicans conduct their campaign, nor how magnetic their final candidate is (ha!), Ford will dominate the coverage. It doesn't matter how far ahead his opponent is, and he will be every step of the way; Ford will dominate. It doesn't matter who wins, Ford will get sympathetic post-election coverage that will focus on his "gracious in defeat" manner or his "surprising" showing. These are the facts in Tennessee. Democrats who do well nationally get nearly sycophantic press coverage; successful Republicans are deferred to and respected but do not receive the same style of treatment.

For those without much time, or interest at this point, you can read this brief roundup of the landscape from the Memphis Commercial Appeal. (Registration required.)

But Harold Ford, Jr. will lose. So let's get him out of the way. Harold Ford is the presumptive nominee on the Democratic side. He has the national reputation and a career in the House that give him that all-important edge over any State-level competitor. He's a rising star among the national Democratic leadership, and a would-be heir both to the star power of Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Committee's fading legacy.

He's one of a coming breed of post-Civil Rights Era black politicians. He is a black candidate acceptable, and even attractive, to a lot of whites; able to speak the bland pieties of politics without recourse to black cadences like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Ford can "be black" without having to play the race card. He doesn't automatically cause white liberal guilt meters to twitch with his merest utterances.

On the state level, however, he is still a Ford. Their behavior has filled newspaper pages and television screens for decades. His uncle John, the legendary State Senator who lives his life like an armed and dangerous 19th Century Mormon, and his father Harold, Sr. who after financial scandals bequeathed his seat to his son in a dynastic display worthy of a Kennedy, have created lasting memories on Tennesseans. Add to that the less-well known Memphis City Council Fords and other local relatives, and you have an extended family whose whiff is deeply unpleasant to many Tennesseans; even some Democrats will curl their lip at the mention of the Ford name. Whatever national cachet he possesses will always lose some of its potency inside the state because of that. Nationally, the press seems little interested in the connections, but in the heat of a high-profile, do-or-die (for Democrats) Senate race that may change.

That's partly why the Republicans are making so much hay of Senator John Ford's latest shenanigans with regards to his multiple-partner, multi-home, settling child support in court, family life. It has nothing to do with Harold, but it makes the Fords look sleazy. Republicans hope some of that slime will spatter Harold. In morality-conscious Tennessee, that will cost votes. The more-legitimate questions of John's residency (which I predict the State Senate will ignore, as it affects too many other politicians) and the questionable ethics of his financial connections to TennCare and Children's Services (which the Feds may have to pursue) will serve to keep the Ford name in the press much longer as investigations are called for, deflected, debated, started and dragged out.

There's also the fact that Ford's state power base derives almost entirely from two places: Shelby County, specifically Memphis, where he's unassailable, and in the capital in Nashville, where it's mostly admiration for his political skills. There are still some thin areas in the counties in between where he can count on votes, but Middle and East Tennessee are solidly Republican. Were his home district not equally solidly black and Democratic, he'd have to devote more energy to shoring up that base, making him a far less viable contender. On the flip side, his ability to make inroads is severely cramped.

So we have State Senator Rosalind Kurita throwing in her name against Ford in the Democratic primary. Her advantage is that she's not a Ford. She's also well-regarded elsewhere in the state. Her problem is the opposite of Ford's: she will make almost no ground in Shelby County and without that she can't come close to winning her party's nomination. Just on raw numbers, she has no chance.

Ford also has another problem: a significant part of his power is his national reputation, on which he has become dependent. With the national party in severe flux following a decade of losing election cycles, he finds himself having to defend his Clinton/DLC tactics against a leadership falling under the sway of the Howard Dean / / antiwar, anti-America Left. Moderates and centrists are being thinned out, made to toe the line, in order to draw sharper distinctions against Republicans. Ford's co-optation instincts are frowned upon.

The Ford campaign began, for the state press and for all practical purposes, with this article, adulatory but honest, from the alt-weekly Nashville Scene, back in March of 2004! Looking back from the Demcrats' post-2004 turmoil and struggle, it's eerily prescient to read this:
Sounds like a pretty good formula, but this kind of thing doesn't sit well with people like Nikki Courtney, popular morning show personality on WMAK 96.3-FM. During a Q-and-A session following a recent Ford appearance, Courtney shouts into a microphone while apologizing to the 200 or so "Music Row Democrats" gathered at the Belcourt Theatre to hear Ford speak. She takes him to task for telling the audience to stop acting angry.

"I am angry!" she bellows. "I am pissed off! I want to say that I'm angry!" Some applause follows, and Courtney continues.

Throughout, Ford listens patiently, waits a beat after she's finished, nods in acknowledgment and then pretty much repeats what he had just said.

"Forget 'angry,' " he concludes. "The word we need to focus on is 'winning.'"

Mild grumbling in the peanut gallery begins to grow. This crowd wants some red meat, and Ford, irritatingly, refuses to provide it. There is mild doubt on the faces of some of the diehards as Ford continues to say things they don't necessarily want to hear. The question is written on their perplexed faces: We like this guy, but is he really one of us?
The answer today is no. Ford is a student of Clinton and Bush, admitting it willingly, who each won with similar tactics of wide appeal and issue poaching and personal charisma. His desire to stay near the middle puts him at odds with the still left-moving national party, who are starting to flex muscle against DLC legacists such as himself.

Abramson was far ahead of his time in this article. He makes points and illustrates Ford in ways that resonate almost two years later. It is must reading still. He also nails Ford's problems.

Democrats are coming at Ford now, trying to rope the wayward stallion back into the corral. Take The Black Commentator for instance. They write:
The Black body politic has been invaded by corporate money, which seeks through its media arms to select a new Black leadership from among a small group of compliant and corrupt Democrats. Memphis Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. is a principal vector of the disease, an eager acolyte of the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), and now the point man among Black Democrats in the Republican mission to destroy Social Security.

Ford should also be known as the Black Man Who Dances With Blue Dogs one of only two Black congressional members of the Blue Dog Democratic Coalition (the other Black and Blue Dog is Georgia Rep. Sanford Bishop). C-span congressional scholar Ilona Nickles aptly describes the Blue Dogs as "closer in purpose to a former coalition of southern Members of the House known as the ‘Boll Weevils,’ whose heyday was in the early 1980's. These Members defected as a group from the Democratic party to vote with Congressional Republicans on budgetary and tax bills."
The early 80's, you are reminded, is the period when the Republicans' began their national rebirth. Ford is a student of winners, regardless of party, which is a source of trouble with his party mates, who increasingly are only looking to a narrower and narrower part of themselves.

Another recent and unmistakable example comes from another alt-weekly, the Memphis Flyer. Ford has been making sympathetic, but deliberately vague, noises about Social Security reform for years. Even Abramson mentions it. It's of a piece with Ford's ASPIRE program and its ideals of an "ownership society." He's been unclear intentionally. He needs to sound just reformist enough to appeal to Republicans who might support Bush's prosecution of the War on Terror, but dislike his flaccid domestic agenda. So, he can't be clear that he'll need tax increases to do his reforms, which is why he is happy if pundits and commentators inaccurately ally him with the President's plans. On the other side, he has to reassure Democrats that whatever reforms he supports, they won't be unpalatable. Study what he's proposing and you'll see the same old "more government, more money, more outreach" Democratic approach. Ford hoped no is paying close enough attention either way to call his bluff.

He was wrong. Lots of the new leadership in the party has been and felt the need to get Ford to clear things up. Jackson Baker, the Flyer's political columnist and a Democratic sympathiser in the general sense of wanting to see the party returned to power and dominance, took up the cudgel. Baker's purpose is multi-fold, I believe. First, he reads the changing winds, the continuing leftward drift, and is tagging along. Second, I believe he's always hoped that covering Ford, the rising national star, would get him noticed nationally as well. Maybe gain him some credibility as a "long time chronicler" of the Ford arc, or at least earn him some insider status when Ford becomes a Senator or Presidential candidate one day. Additionally, Baker has really gotten into blogs recently and may be angling for some respect from that quarter.

Baker undertook, in this article, to fix the Ford "problem" vis-a-vis Social Security. It's very well written, lays out the situation clearly, and forcibly pins Ford to a clear plan. It also destroyed all Ford's careful work. As Baker noted, one national Democratic opinion leader, Josh Marshall, thought enough of the article to use it as the basis of changing his opinion of Ford. And now Ford is divorced from perceived Bush sympathies, a potential vote getter, and nailed to a traditional "tax and spend" Democratic plan. He's also firmly associated with Democratic obstructionism and their inexplicable view that there is no problem with Social Security, a view diametrically opposed to his. While the folks at the Flyer are as pleased as can be with their accomplishment, Ford is reportedly quite upset. Small wonder, with friends like these "helping" him out. Having achieved this victory, Baker promises to keep up his shepharding of the wayward Congressman.

This incident gives Tennessee Republicans something they are likely to use against him. They can plausibly argue that Ford is nothing like Clinton or Bush, as he tries to portray himself. He's no longer a party-leading moderate, but a minion of the Left. They can also definitively show that if the Democratic leadership pushes hard enough, Ford will bend to them against the wishes of his potential constituents. His independence and flexibility have been destroyed. In a state like Tennessee, with a strong-minority Democratic party requiring outreach to Republican voters for Democratic success, he's been knee-capped politically. But hey, at least he's ideologically pure now. More tactics like this will end his Senate chances utterly.

Next we turn to the Republican side, which is already, 18 months out, getting crowded. One major possible candidate, US Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, has declined a run. Her House seat is reasonably secure and she enjoys a sterling reputation. She also has iron-clad Republican credentials thanks to her efforts to stop a Tennessee income tax several years ago. It was she who passed the word to a Nashville radio-show host that a tax vote was about to be snuck through the Tennessee General Assembly. The resulting protests formed within minutes and lasted for months, a staggering show of sustained resistance that killed an income tax for many years (altering state-level politics with it), ended a lot of political careers, and earned her the enmity of newspaper editors across the state. I suspect this ready-made target (the press to this day still refer to the daily throngs of protesters as "horn-honking" yahoos), along with a thriving House career, affected her decision not to run.

The reason the Republican primary field is so crowded is a bit of "inside baseball." Bill Frist's voluntary stepping down, after a promised two terms, is almost unprecedented. Senate seats rarely come open. The men and women who gain them generally have a virtual lifetime cinesure. Incumbents are rarely beaten. It takes disease or death, major scandal, or the rare generational political re-alignment to unseat a Senator. Even then, there is usually an "heir apparent" already in line waiting election. Frist has avoided this. An open seat such as we face is just too tempting not to take a run at. The odds may be long, but the rewards make it entirely worthwhile.

There are presently three major players in the field.

Undeclared but a likely entrant is the former candidate for Tennessee governor, Van Hilleary. Hilleary is generally well-like and well-respected, and has lots of support state-wide, in part because of the publicity of the 2002 gubernatiorial race. That race, and its decisive win for Democrat Phil Bredesen, may come back to haunt him. Already a Republican with good credentials, he managed to lose to a Democrat who -- in Alabama Governor George Wallace's famous phrase -- "out-segged" him.

Hilleary somehow found his Republican strength unseated and outflanked by a Democrat who outdid him on solid Republican issues and put him on the defensive. Republicans were divided by their governor, Don Sundquist, who in his second term suddenly turned his back on Republican principles. He spent wildly and backed a decidedly unpopular State income tax. Bredesen successfully fought his Democratic baggage: attachment to a party that had just fought a vicious battle to pass a State income tax and a perception that he would "back door" that tax if elected. Bredesen, as a Democrat, was widely expected by everyone -- Republican and Democrat -- to continue the budget-busting spending of his Republican predecessor, but he steadily stated he would reduce spending and not propose new programs. He was repeatedly hammered with this expectation and never bowed. Hilleary was flummoxed and never gained an offensive. He came off as oddly weak, lacking in leadership, always playing catch-up to Bredesen. Hilleary lost soundly to a Democrat in a race widely tipped to be the Republicans' to lose, leaving him tainted. Facing another underdog Democrat in the Senate race may be a little too uncomfortably close to a history repeat possibility for many. At the least, he'll lose energy, money and time combatting this perception.

Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker has been running for quite a while already. He's already got a reported $2 million in the bank, with fund-raising season still to come. But, as Nashville blogger and conservative Republican pundit Bill Hobbs notes:
[Corker is] a moderate Republican allied with the
state's previous big-spending/pro-income tax governor and also cozy with Democrats....
I have to admit that I know next to nothing about Corker. That, in itself, spells trouble for him, as Shelby County / West Tennessee must be a part of a winning state-wide formula in any primary run. Once the race gets underway, expect to see him spend a lot of early time over in the Western Grand Division.

[Note to non-Tennessee readers: This long, narrow state is traditionally parsed into three "grand divisions" largely due to geography's effect on 19th century politics and agriculture / manufacturing. The Tennessee River provides the natural boundaries: its eastern flow to the south separates the Eastern and Middle Divisions and on its return northward flow after passing through Alabama it divides the Middle and Western Grand Divisions. Memphis is the "capital" of the West, where the focus was Mississippi River trade and small farming, and the land is very flat and loamy. Nashville is the "capital" of the Middle (sometimes Central), with horses and politics, and elevated rocky soil atop the Cumberland Plateau. Knoxville rules the insular East, with mining, and its Appalachian geography. These Divisions are still politically and culturally distinctive to this day. There are still meaningful animosities and competitions, too.]

The last major candidate, and the one I think is currently in the best position, is former four-term Congressman Ed Bryant. (Campaign website already here.) Bryant has previously made a run at the other Tennessee Senate seat, the one currently occupied by former governor and Republican Lamar Alexander. There are important lessons and cautions to note here.

Bryant is the only social conservative in the race so far. His stances on a wide array of issues habr strong appeal to fundamentalist and evangelical Christian conservatives. He can be counted on to use this appeal in the next Senate race.

But in 2002, when Alexander opposed him, the Bush White House (read: Karl Rove) refused to endorse Bryant, even though he was widely viewed as a stronger candidate, and backed the far past his prime Alexander instead. (He had been reduced to a sideshow perennial Presidential campaign that was noted more for sad laughs than serious consideration.) Alexander has also sometimes been derided for his moderate/RINO (Republican in Name Only) tendencies. The choice stung Bryant.

In that race, and other elections cycles during his first term, Bush and his advisors have shown a consistent tendency to prefer "marquee" Republicans -- former office holders or candidates with proven name appeal -- over more strongly credentialed social conservatives. Riordan over Simon in California; Liddy Dole, Arlen Specter, Lamar Alexander, etc. Even if the "marquee" Republicans carry RINO labels and visible liberal positions, the Bush White House has gone to them over popular and desirable social, Christian, and fiscal conservatives.

In Tennessee's 2006 Senate race, they are the other shoe waiting to be dropped. It's still an open question whether the White House will involve itself as strongly as it has to date in Senate and House races. Rove has announced that his days of Presidential campaigning are over, but he's also believed to be committed to a plan to ensure a Republican dominance of national politics to rival their previous early 20th century reign, and the mid-century Democratic one. Keeping Tennessee red is vital to that plan.

Where does that leave Bryant? Hanging in limbo, unfortunately. At present, I can't think of another "marquee" Tennessee Republican who can be called on. Will the Bush White House accept a social conservative if he's the winning candidate? Or will they move to back a lesser-known (and so more expensive to campaign) moderate like Corker? It's the open question that will be decisive in shaping the Republican primary campaign season.

Hilleary and Bryant are both already touting polls showing them leading the field. Obviously, at this early date the polls are totally without merit except as tools for media marketing and newspaper stories. Most Tennesseans have no idea there's already a contest going on!

As the race begins to take shape later this year and really heat up, there are many places to get information. From the traditional newsprint sources you can expect the standard, familiar, Democrat-leaning analysis and reporting. Here's the big-city rundown:
In Memphis: the daily Commercial Appeal and the alt-weekly Memphis Flyer.
In Nashville: the daily Tennessean and the alt-weekly Nashville Scene.
In Knoxville: the daily News-Sentinel.

Online, there are the following conservative and/or Republican blogs:
Hobbs Online (Tennessee's #1 right-side blogger and conservative Republican.)
South End Grounds (Former Republican operative in Nashville.)
Half-Bakered (Memphis conservative Libertarian.)
Frank Cagle (Long-time commentator and analyst.)
Fishkite (Christian conservative supporter of Ed Bryant.)
Right Minded (Lebanon, TN, Democrat reporter and columnist.)
Adam Groves (UT graduate and Republican political operative.)

...and their liberal and/or Democratic counterparts:
South Knox Bubba (Tennessee's #1 left-side blogger and "progressive" Democrat.)
LeanLeft (Memphis Democrats.)
No Silence Here (Knoxville News-Sentinel reporter and blogger.)
Democratic Talk Radio (Tennessee-based, partisan Democratic weekly talk radio show and website.)

This bloglist is by no means complete. As the election approaches more will join in. Most folks aren't paying attention yet. But at the present time, these are the ones who are or shortly will be shaping the discussion. You can go to the Rocky Top Brigade webpage for a more complete list of Tennessee bloggers.

The race will ultimately be hot and vigorous. It will have a defining effect on the career of Harold Ford, Jr. It may even become a bellwether for Democratic chances of recovery under Howard Dean's leadership and Republican plans for the post-Bush future. Stay tuned.

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