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.
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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.
Republicans have found it maddeningly impossible to twist Ford into a liberal. Now, with the Senate on the line and Ford showing no signs of stumbling, they’re trying to paint the sexy, slick-talking Ivy League bachelor as culturally alien to the good white folk of Tennessee. Republicans have assailed Ford, both in ads and on a website called “FancyFord.com,” for reportedly attending a Playboy party after last year’s Super Bowl. Corker refers darkly to Ford’s politically powerful Memphis clan, which has seen more than its share of scandals, as a “machine.” GOP campaign fliers in October featured a suspiciously darkened image of Ford; later in the month, a radio ad accusing him of unfairly favoring blacks repeated the word “black” six times in its first twenty-four seconds, warning Tennesseans that he’s a member of the “Congressional Black Caucus, an all-black group of congressmen who represent the interests of black people.”
“They’re edging right up to the line of race-baiting,” says Bruce Oppenheimer, a longtime Tennessee political observer and professor at Vanderbilt University. Carol Swain, a black conservative professor at Vanderbilt, says the attacks appear designed, in classic coded fashion, to “trigger some questions about black people’s responsibility once in power.”
Republicans went all the way over the line — and then some — with another “Fancy Ford” ad that first slithered its way into Tennesseeans’ living rooms in mid-October. The spot climaxes with a blonde young actress portraying a Playboy vixen who says she met Ford at the Super Bowl party. (She must have looked hard for him; there were a reported 3,000 revelers in attendance.) “Harold, call me,” she whispers come-hitheringly. When racial-stereotyping alarms began ringing out across the state (and nation), Corker weakly protested that the ad should be pulled, but the Republican National Committee–well aware that the slime was now getting the keen attention of potential voters–refused. When the ad finally disappeared, it was replaced by a lurid spot called “Shaky,” claiming that Ford “took cash from Hollywood’s top X-rated porn moguls” and “wants to give the abortion pill to our schoolchildren.”
The “Call Me” ad has been widely denounced as a cruder form of race-baiting than even Jesse Helms’ infamous “white hands” ad–with a white working stiff balling up a rejection letter for a job he lost to affirmative action in 1990–and more inflammatory than even the Willie Horton attack on Michael Dukakis in 1988. Here, after all, was an appeal to the rawest, dankest, most down-in-the-gutter of racial phobias. All campaign year long, the Republicans had been working–see FancyFord.com — to insinuate that Ford is just the kind of charming, winsome, slick-talking black man who makes white women’s knees weak. Now insinuation had given way to a race-baiting version of “shock and awe.” True to form, Ford came up with the smartest possible replies; on the one hand, he denounced the Republicans for peddling smut while claiming, “I have too much joy in my heart to be mad”; on the other hand, he scored “regular guy” points by winkingly allowing, “I gotta admit, I do like girls.” But none of that can blot out the queasy suspicions already imprinted on some voters’ brains.
With Republican desperation mounting, the last weeks of the campaign are spawning more of the same. GOP strategists know that black candidates for statewide office in the South have been repeatedly done in by “hidden racial bias,” whereby whites tell pollsters they’ll support a black candidate but can’t quite pull the trigger when they vote. In 1989 Virginia’s Doug Wilder held a ten-point lead in the polls at the end of his historic campaign for governor–and won by less than half of 1 percent. The next year Harvey Gantt consistently led North Carolina’s Dixie-whistling Senator Jesse Helms–until election day, when he lost by six points. Gantt met a similar fate in 1996, as did Kirk six years later in Texas.
It is anything but clear what kind of senator Ford will make if he can break that old curse. Some Democrats hope he’ll edge back toward his original centrism; many expect him to join the small band of Congressional DINOs (Democrats in Name Only) led by Senator Joe Lieberman, whom Ford recently endorsed over Democrat Ned Lamont. But there is no question that Tennessee voters’ verdict on November 7 will send a loud and lasting message about the viability of black Democrats in statewide (not to mention national) races. If Ford’s ideological acrobatics and boundless charm can’t make white voters look past the color of his skin, what will?