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The Battle for Congress: Tennessee’s Harold Ford Aims to Become First Black Senator From the South Since Reconstruction

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One of the most closely watched races this election is in Tennessee. Representative Harold Ford is running against Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Majority Leader Bill Frist. The race has gotten increasingly close in recent weeks. Democrats hope that this seat will be one of the six seats needed to regain their majority. [includes rush transcript]

Harold Ford is a five-term Democratic Congressman who comes from a political family — his father, Harold Ford Sr., served as a Congressman in the district currently represented by his son. Seven other Fords have also held political office in the state. If Ford is elected–he will be the first black Senator from a southern state since Reconstruction.

Mike Wenger joins me now from Washington, DC. He is the Acting Vice President for Communications at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

  • Mike Wenger, Acting Vice President for Communications at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the most closely watched races this election is in Tennessee. Congressmember Harold Ford is running against Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker for the Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Majority Leader, Dr. Bill Frist. The race has gotten increasingly close in recent weeks, with Democrats hoping this seat will be one of the six seats needed to regain their majority.

Harold Ford is a five-term Democratic congress member who comes from a political family. His father, Harold Ford, Sr., served as a congress member in the district currently represented by his son. Seven other Fords have also held political office in the state. If Ford is elected, he’ll be the first black senator from a Southern state since Reconstruction.

Mike Wenger also joins us now from Washington, D.C., in addition to John Nichols. Mike Wenger is the Acting Vice President for Communications at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. We welcome you, as well, to Democracy Now!, Mike.

MIKE WENGER: Thank you. Glad to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this race, the Corker-Ford race for Senate?

MIKE WENGER: Sure. Harold Ford has run a remarkably excellent campaign. He wasn’t given much of a chance in the beginning, being African American, running statewide in Tennessee, a Southern state, but he has run a terrific campaign. Bob Corker has made some mistakes along the way. And Ford now appears in the polls to be a couple of points ahead.

However, I would caution there that in the past polling has been notoriously inaccurate when it comes to statewide African American candidates. Because of political correctness, what you see is white people telling pollsters that they will vote for the African American candidate, but when they go into the voting booth they often don’t do that. We saw that in California several years ago when Tom Bradley was favored to be elected governor of California, and he lost. Harvey Gantt, who was favored to be elected to the Senate from North Carolina, he lost. Doug Wilder was elected governor of Virginia, but in the polling up to Election Day and in the exit polling, he was ten points ahead, but he won by about one point, while his running mates won by about ten points. So there has to be some caution here regarding the polls in Tennessee.

Having said that, Harold Ford has run a terrific campaign. Things are changing. And Harold Ford has also run a fairly conservative campaign. He seems to be in sync with Tennessee voters on the issues. So that’s going to be a very interesting race to watch right down to the end.

AMY GOODMAN: The Corker campaign is trying to distance itself from an advertisement created by the Republican National Committee attacking Harold Ford. The ad has drawn heavy criticism for being racially divisive. The 30-second spot features fictional characters satirizing Ford in mock in-the-street interviews. We’re going to play a clip.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Harold Ford looks nice. Isn’t that enough?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Terrorists need their privacy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: When I die, Harold Ford will let me pay taxes again.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ford’s right: I do have too many guns.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I met Harold at the Playboy party.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I’d love to pay higher marriage taxes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Canada can take care of North Korea. They’re not busy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So we took money from porn movie producers. I mean, who hasn’t?

RNC: The Republican National Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Harold, call me.

AMY GOODMAN: That “Harold, call me,” is a white blonde woman winking into the camera. Hilary Shelton, head of the Washington office of the NAACP told the Los Angeles Times the ad, quote, “is a powerful innuendo that plays to pre-existing prejudices about African American men and white women.” Corker’s campaign is now trying to distance itself from the ad. In a letter to station managers, the chair of the campaign, Tom Ingram, called the ad “over the top, tacky, and […] not reflective of the kind of campaign we are running.” Ingram went on to write, “We’re disappointed that the advertisement continues to run and request station managers across the state strongly consider pulling this advertisement immediately.” Mike Wenger, your response?

MIKE WENGER: Well, this is not the first time this kind of thing has happened, when in the past we’ve seen very divisive ads with regard to African American candidates, where they play on racial fears of white people. We saw that during the first President Bush campaign in 1988, the Willie Horton ad, which clearly played on white fears of African Americans, and it was very effective. So as long as those kinds of ads are effective, they’ll be used. But there is no question that this ad plays to white fears and is racist in its nature.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the issue of black voter turnout overall?

MIKE WENGER: Well, that’s important, and that’s particularly important in close races across the country. In the three Senate races that your previous guest talked about that will probably determine the control of the Senate — Tennessee, Missouri, and Virginia — black turnout is going to be critical. Harold Ford obviously needs huge turnout of black voters. In Missouri, Claire McCaskill, the Democratic candidate, needs a huge turnout of black voters. And in Virginia, Jim Webb needs a huge turnout of black voters, as well. That’s an interesting race, of course, because if George Allen stumbles over the word “Macaca” and his use of the N-word, and that may drive up African American turnout in that race, which would be to Jim Webb’s benefit.

AMY GOODMAN: On the issue of Ford back in Tennessee, if he is elected, it will be the first time in a long time that two black senators are in office at the same time. Of course, Senator Barack Obama from Illinois, he is not running now, though you might say he is running, possibly for president, has just made this big announcement and, in a number of the articles I’ve read about him, is really looking at this race, Harold Ford’s race, for how an African American will do in the South.

MIKE WENGER: Well, and he’d do well to look at that race, because Harold Ford has run as a fairly conservative candidate. He has played up his faith, his religious faith, so I think that Barack Obama would do well to look at the Ford campaign as an indication of how an African American can run in the South.

I would point out furthermore the significance that you raised of having two African Americans in the Senate at the same time. As you know, the first African American U.S. senator since Reconstruction was Ed Brooke, who was elected in Massachusetts, a Republican, by the way. Then Carol Moseley Braun from Illinois, and then Barack Obama. But we’ve never, since Reconstruction, had two African Americans in the Senate at the same time. That would make a significant difference. It’s one thing to be a lone voice. It’s another to have some company, when you raise your voices on issues of particular concern to your community.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about other African Americans who are running? For example, Michael Steele in Maryland, Ken Blackwell in Ohio, Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania, running for governor, the former football player.

MIKE WENGER: Well, Ken Blackwell and Lynn Swann are Republicans. They’re almost surely not going to win. Ken Blackwell has been a victim not only of the problems that President Bush has, but he’s been a victim of a number of scandals that have beset the Republican Party in Ohio. Lynn Swann is running against a fairly popular Democratic governor in Pennsylvania, incumbent Ed Rendell. He is unlikely to win.

Michael Steele has run a very effective campaign in Maryland. But Maryland is a very Democratic state, and in a year that looks to be good for Democrats, Michael Steele is going to have a hard time. If this were a different year and the Republicans were not in such deep trouble, Michael Steele would have a very good chance to be elected to the Senate from Maryland. As it is, he is probably not going to win.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols of The Nation and the Capital Times, you’ve looked at Ken Blackwell in Ohio.

JOHN NICHOLS: Sure. Ken Blackwell is in terrible trouble. He’s not going anywhere. He’s down, depending on which poll you look at, twelve-fifteen points. Some polls show it a little closer, but the Republicans have pretty much given up on that race. And the significant thing about Blackwell is that, unlike Michael Steele, who our other guest references, who has worked hard and developed at least a reasonably good reputation in the African American community in Maryland, Ken Blackwell is really on the outs with the African American community in Ohio, because he is seen as having been so heavily involved in efforts to depress the black vote in the 2004 presidential race. And frankly, many Republicans I’ve talked to in Ohio say that Blackwell is a drag on the ticket. He is more harmful than helpful. And the weakness of Ken Blackwell may actually be one of the many factors that help to defeat U.S. Senator Mike DeWine out there.

AMY GOODMAN: Overall, Mike Wenger, on the issue of African Americans across the board, not only in federal races, but in state races — and John Nichols, I know you’ve been looking at state houses, as well — is minority representation up in this country, in terms of elected office?

MIKE WENGER: Well, sure. There are about — in all offices at all levels, there are about 9,500 black elected officials now across the country. That compares to under a thousand, when the Joint Center was founded in 1970. We’re going to, in all likelihood, see another African American governor this year: Deval Patrick, Democrat in Massachusetts. We’re likely to see at least two African American lieutenant governors elected: David Paterson in New York and Anthony Brown in Maryland. And according to the most recent polls that I have seen, the race in Florida is getting closer, and the Democratic candidate for governor and lieutenant governor were down pretty far, but now that race is tightening up, and Daryl Jones, an African American man, is Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in that state. So we will see, in all likelihood, more African Americans in statewide offices, and not just governor and lieutenant governor. In many other offices in Georgia, Illinois, Connecticut, Ohio, other states, there are African Americans holding statewide elected office now.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s a piece in the_Los Angeles Times_ today, “Latino and Black Voters Reassessing Ties to GOP,” and it says, “A major effort to draw Latinos and blacks into the Republican Party, a central element of the GOP plan to build a long-lasting majority, is in danger of collapse amid anger over the immigration debate and claims that Republican leaders have not delivered on promises to direct more money to church-based social services.” The L.A. Times goes on to say, “President Bush, strategist Karl Rove and other top Republicans have wooed Latino and black leaders, many of them evangelical clergy who lead large congregations, in hopes of peeling away the traditional Democratic base. But now some of the leaders who helped Bush win in 2004 are revisiting their loyalty to the Republican Party and, in some cases, abandoning it.” Mike Wenger?

MIKE WENGER: Yeah. Well, I don’t think they’ve actually been very successful in breaking any significant number of African Americans away from the Democratic Party. All you have to do is look at the positions that Republicans at the national level have taken over the past years, and African American voters are smart. They look at positions that people take, and so I think Republicans have not been very successful, in any event, in peeling away very many African American voters.

With regard to Latino voters, I think the immigration issue is huge. We saw that a number of years ago in California, which was a competitive state for Republicans until Prop 187, and Pete Wilson, the then-Republican governor of California, supporting Prop 187, which was an anti-immigrant referendum, and Latinos have voted heavily for Democrats in California since then and made California a pretty solid Democratic state. I think that Republican position on immigration has the danger for them of driving Latinos to the Democratic Party and negating any hope that the Republicans might have had of getting a significant percentage of Latino votes down the rode.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike Wenger, I want to thank you for being with us, Acting Vice President for Communications at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. And also John Nichols of The Nation magazine, associate editor also of Capital Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin. John Nichols’s new book is called The Genius of Impeachment.

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