The most audacious campaign ad of this topsy-turvy political year is set in the sanctuary of the Mt. Moriah East Baptist Church in Memphis. With a praise song swelling in the background, the camera pans down from sunlit stained-glass windows to a dapper young man striding thoughtfully up the aisle and flashing a Hollywood smile as he says, “I started church the old-fashioned way–I was forced to. And I’m better for it…. Here, I learned the difference between right and wrong.” But now, he says solemnly, his opponent is “doing wrong,” “telling untruths about…me.” He sits in a pew and leans forward prayerfully. With a huge red tapestry with a white cross perfectly positioned over his right shoulder, he dead-eyes the camera and corrects the record. “I voted for the Patriot Act, five trillion in defense, and against amnesty for illegals. I approved this message because I won’t let them make me somebody I’m not. And I’ll always fight for you.”
While militant God-talk has long been a staple of Republican campaigns, shooting ads inside the “Lord’s house” has been considered off-limits. But that wasn’t the biggest source of surprise when Tennesseans started seeing the now-famous “church ad” in September. The candidate exploiting his faith was a Democrat–Harold Ford Jr., the 36-year-old Congressman from Memphis. Once considered a quixotic long shot to fill the US Senate seat left vacant by Republican majority leader Bill Frist, Ford has risen from a double-digit deficit in the polls to draw even with former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, a moderately conservative multimillionaire with all the charisma of a tree stump. Ford could deliver the Democrats a majority in the Senate by becoming just the fourth African-American ever elected to that chamber by popular vote, and the first from the South.
But you won’t hear Ford breathe a word about the historic significance of his bid. The great object of his unorthodox and devilishly successful campaign has been to erase every last stereotype that might pop into a white Tennessean’s head upon hearing two words: “black Democrat.”
Rocketing back and forth across the green hills of Tennessee with unflagging energy, Ford has wooed white conservatives with an exuberant mash-up of high-voltage star power, earthy eloquence and a contrarian right-wingery that never fails to surprise and delight. “I get in trouble with Democrats,” he confessed not long ago to the Rotary Club in the town of Cleveland, “because I like President Bush.” In a year when most Republican candidates won’t touch their Commander in Chief with a ten-foot pole, Ford hugs him tight. “They say I don’t look like you,” he recently assured a crowd of Caucasians at the Catfish Place in Camden, “but I share your values.”
Ford has always been something of a mold-breaker. Inheriting his liberal father’s longtime Congressional seat in 1996, when he was just 26, “Junior” came to Washington preaching the New Democrats’ gospel of fiscal restraint, corporate-friendliness and social moderation. Ford mostly voted the Democratic line until 2002, when he mounted a prowar challenge to Nancy Pelosi for minority leader, calling her “too liberal.” The upstart got spanked, 177 to 29. But for the insatiably ambitious Ford, who says he’s been “training for this since I was a kid,” that setback was merely his cue to start running for the Senate. He’d pondered a race against Frist in 2000, touring the state and charming Democratic activists before deciding the time wasn’t right–or the political climate.
Ford watched closely in 2002 as a similarly probusiness moderate, Texan Ron Kirk, ran a strong Senate campaign that was ultimately derailed by Republican John Cornyn’s success at branding his black opponent with the “L-word.” Ford was not about to let that happen to him. In the past two Congresses, he voted the conservative line on every issue likely to matter to Tennessee voters come 2006. From being a moderate on immigration, he became one of Washington’s staunchest border-warriors. He voted to extend Bush’s tax cuts and supported constitutional amendments against flag-burning and gay marriage. His old F rating from the National Rifle Association turned into a B.