Why Tennessee Remains Red:
Bob Corker 'Gore'd' Harold Ford, Jr.
Sam T. Harper
FRANKLIN COUNTY, Tn -- Sifting through the analyses of the '06 campaign results I have seen a range of conclusions: some report that the results "clearly" show a repudiation of President Bush; some show that W and the GOP got off relatively easy when compared to the majorities in previous 6th year election results.
This tendency to look for a one-size-fits-all national reason for hundreds of individual elections defies what I believe is true; Tip O'Neill's insight that all politics are local. I do not doubt that many of the defeats of incumbents were due to the same reasons: corruption, failure to not follow principles campaigned on in the past, disgruntlement with the progress of the War in Iraq, badly run campaigns (ex., Sen. Allen in Virginia), or an attitude to let's try someone different.
Even with the commonality of reasons, I bet that with close analysis we would find a local take on the common reasons or even a purely local reason for the defeat.
This preamble brings me to the point of this article. Why did Tennessee remain a red state while GOP incumbents were dropping like rotten limbs in a wind storm everywhere else? My answer: It was not national politics; it was local politics.
To me, the U.S. Senate race (Ford vs. Corker) was the defining race in keeping Tennessee red. How did Corker, a relatively unknown former mayor of Chattanooga beat the nationally promoted Memphis Congressman Harold Ford, Jr.?
This campaign began in earnest in 2005 when Congressman Harold Ford (D, Tenn) ran against Congressman Nancy Pelosi (D, California/San Francisco) for minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives. Ford had no chance of beating Pelosi. What it did, though, was vault him into the national spotlight. He was young, handsome, articulate, and promoted as the "new face" of the Democrats. He showed up on the Sunday TV shows, the morning TV shows, and many other venues. He was gushed over and invited to high visibility events.
It was a very politically savvy move. It gave him exposure nationally, but more importantly, it showed Tennesseans that he was a national "player", not a "Memphis politician"; the latter thought of (generally) as a derogatory term here in Tennessee.
It also did something very critical to building the theme for his senatorial campaign: He could now avoid having to vote (without retribution from his own party) for a San Francisco liberal (Pelosi) for the Democrat leadership; a nearly indefensible vote to explain in Tennessee.
This avoidance allowed him to begin to position himself as a conservative Democrat. He bragged of going into "redneck" bars and being greeted. He campaigned in churches. His website stated "Ford has proven himself as a moderate to conservative representative."
Ford's image as a "good guy" from his minority leadership campaign was also successful in shielding him from the growing scandals of bribery and election irregularities in his home congressional district. The bribery scandal (a.k.a. The Tennessee Waltz) and the election irregularities swirled around his uncle, State Senator John Ford (who was arrested the day after Harold Ford announced his run for the U.S. Senate) in the former and his aunt, Ophelia Ford, in the latter.
As Ford cranked up his senate campaign, so did Bob Corker but with less impressive though winning results. He had a primary campaign against two tough conservative candidates. It was a rough campaign. There was much reporting that Corker's win had alienated Tennessee conservatives and thus doomed him in November. The key point of his victory was missed by the media: Corker had won decisively with over 50% of the votes in a three way race; his two opponents were better known throughout the state than Corker.
Up through Labor Day 2006, Ford's senate campaign was successful. He was 10 points ahead of Corker in the polls. Corker's campaign was plain: not much about him; more about issues. With Ford running "conservative", Corker's issues did nothing to differentiate him.
In late September, Corker changed his campaign staff by bringing in Senator Lamar Alexander's Chief of Staff, Tom Ingram. Ingram cranked up the intensity of the campaign and re-defined it.
Ads appeared revealing Ford, Jr's large number of missed votes in the House; that Ford, Sr. is an active lobbyist on Ford, Jr.'s congressional committees; Ford, Jr. actively supported some of Bill Clinton's questionable pardons of convicted terrorists; and Ford's claim of being a lawyer was false because he had never passed a bar exam. At the same time, Corker's ads repeatedly referred to himself as "honest" and a "good man". None of the points about either Corker or Ford were untrue, even the Corker points. No one, friend or foe, ever uttered any implications that Bob Corker was dishonest or a man of questionable character. Ford's campaign could find nothing to rebut Corker's ads.
These were classic campaign tactics that began to close the gap between Ford and Corker. They do not, however, explain how Corker got over the top and won.
What I think gave Bob Corker the win was when Corker and Ingram decided to "Al Gore" Harold Ford, Jr.
In early October, Corker began to run an ad with the following script:
"Harold Ford, Jr. grew up D. C.;
Bob Corker in Tennessee.
Harold schooled at Penn;
Bob chose UT.
Harold Ford inherited a life in politics;
Bob Corker built a business, a family, helped secure affordable homes for thousands, and rebuilt a city.
Harold's lived politics;
But Bob Corker has lived a Tennessee life."
Take out Ford and Penn and put in Gore and Harvard and you will see what I mean.
This ad ran throughout October and into the election. The more it ran, the more Corker gained on Ford. Then Ford unwittingly provided the crowning Gore-like tactic when he barged into a Corker press conference and stomped and huffed around, much like Gore's debate tactics in 2000 that cost him so dearly.
Being Al "Gore'd" by Corker clearly defined Ford as both a Washington insider and a Tennessee outsider: neither of which can win in here in red state Tennessee.