The Congressman who is running to replace retiring Bill Frist as Senator from Tennessee has voted to outlaw gay marriage and to repeal the estate tax, and wants to amend the Constitution to ban flag burning. He supports getting rid of the handgun ban in the nation's capital and says the Ten Commandments should be posted in courtrooms around his state. He favors school prayer, argues that more troops should have been sent to Iraq and wants to seal the border with Mexico. He likes to tell a story about the time he campaigned at a bar called the Little Rebel, which had a Confederate flag and a parking lot full of pickup trucks adorned with National Rifle Association bumper stickers. When he went inside, as he tells it, a woman at the bar greeted him with a hug and exclaimed,
None of that would be so remarkable were it not for the fact that this particular Senate candidate is a Democrat, an African American and someone whose last name is synonymous in Tennessee with urban-machine politics. But that's not the reason that both parties are suddenly paying a lot more attention to this state and to 36-year-old Harold Ford Jr. Although Tennessee has not sent a Democrat to the Senate since Al Gore won re-election in 1990, the race is starting to look far closer than just about anyone would have expected a few months ago. And with Democrats leading in the five other states that are considered their best opportunities to pick up Senate seats this fall--Pennsylvania, Montana, Rhode Island, Ohio and Missouri--it is conceivable that a victory by Ford could give them the sixth one that they need to take back control of the chamber.
There are plenty of reasons not to put too heavy a bet on Tennessee just yet to give the Democrats their inside straight. The South has not sent a black Senator to Washington since Reconstruction. More recently it has been hostile territory to Democratic Senate candidates of any race. In 2004 alone the party lost five Southern Senate seats, leaving only four of the region's total of 22 seats in Democratic hands. And, of course, Gore could have been President but for his failure to carry his home state in 2000. For Republicans, "Tennessee is their fire wall," says Jennifer Duffy, who follows Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
But the unpopularity of President George W. Bush and the Republican Congress has created an opportunity this year for the right kind of Democrat, Ford argues. "What the national climate has done in Tennessee is create an atmosphere in which people are willing to listen. The more people listen, the better my chances are."
Ford does indeed get people's attention. Selected one of PEOPLE magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" in 2001, he has a charisma some Tennesseans say they haven't seen since Bill Clinton. Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Council president Jerry Lee, who got his start in politics working for the Democrat in the 1960 presidential election, goes even further back: "Harold Ford Jr. is the most exciting candidate I've seen since John F. Kennedy." Clinton himself, who was in Nashville last week to raise $1 million for Ford and the state party, told a cheering crowd of 1,500 that he sees in Ford "the walking, living embodiment, in my opinion, of where America ought to go in the 21st century."