The key factor in Harold Ford Jr. ’s loss in the Tennessee Senate race may have been his centrist position on many issues, even ranging towards conservatism. Although this centrism helped to find him support during his campaign from Democrats and Republicans alike, that support did not adequately convey to election day. Looking at typical voting patterns, at any state in the country, voters are always most likely to side with candidates from their own party when they reach the polls.
Although some centrist or more liberal Republicans embraced Ford’s ideology initially, they most likely cast their votes with their own party – and in favor of having a seat long-held by a Republican remain the same in the future. So although his ideals may have appealed across party lines, partisan viewpoints still won out in the long run. Harold Ford’s race may also have played a minor role in his defeat within a state where his family has long been active in politics.
As hard as it is to believe that race would still come into play so strongly in this day and age, African Americans are still under-represented in political roles throughout the country. But although race may have played a role in the election’s outcome, that isn’t necessarily indicative that Tennessee, as a whole, is too racist to elect an African American politician. Racism is typically more exhibited in more active fashions than simply not voting for a candidate because of his race.
After all, Ford won election and several re-elections in the very same state as a representative to the U. S. House of Representatives. But while Tennessee was progressive enough to repeatedly elect an African American to the House on several occasions, the fact that there’s never been a Black Senator elected from Tennessee is an important precedent to consider. Added to the fact that a Democrat has not served as Senator for Tennessee in over ten years, and Ford suffered from a continuation of tradition in his efforts to be elected.
The various policies embraced by Harold Ford may have also played a role in his defeat, for much the same reason as more liberal Democrats found it difficult to support his candidacy. As a pro-life candidate who as a representative voted against partial birth abortions, Ford would have found more support among conservative Republicans than the Democratic base he so needed to win election. Somewhat in contradiction to his stance on abortion, however, Ford supports stem cell research – which might alienate the Republican base that his pro-life stance would have influenced.
Ford, as a representative, also leaned towards the conservative side of the aisle in voting to ban same-sex marriage. While these centrist leanings may have appealed to some voters from both the Republican and Democratic parties, to others, it may just have seemed that Ford was straddling the fence, presenting a very mixed record on overall policy beliefs. In the campaign, Bob Corker repeatedly tried to bait Harold Ford, Jr. by bringing up Ford’s family involvement in Tennessee politics spanning several generations.
Corker’s contention was that Ford was running on his daddy’s shirttails instead of on any merit of his own. It is true that Ford has many relatives who has served or are currently serving in political roles within the state, but that alone would not have sunk his campaign. After all, many states have family dynasties – for instance, the Kennedys from Massachusetts. In fact, in the very same election that Ford lost to Corker, a man named Bob Casey defeated incumbent Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum.
Casey, himself, is the product of a family dynasty. His father, Bob Casey, Sr. was governor of Pennsylvania for two terms, and rumors of running on family name instead of personal strengths plagued him through both his Senatorial campaign and several campaigns – both successful and unsuccessful – prior. Many times, name recognition, as provided by family political ties, has proven to be a positive in elections, not a negative.
The smear campaign that began several weeks before the election, sanctioned by the Republican National Committee but opposed by Republican opponent Corker, may have had some impact on Ford’s campaign, but it was likely not the largest issue that ended Ford’s campaign unsuccessfully. Like any smear ad, the so-called Playboy commercial struck fast, provided only a minimal amount of facts, and sought to convey Ford in the worst possible light. Ads like that, however, are not uncommon in the last weeks before an election, and are often waged by even the nicest of candidates against their opponents.
Ford rose above the brouhaha caused by the ad and instead of responding by slinging mud back at the party that had attempted the smear, he instead responded in a glib manner and moved on with his campaign. While doubts on his credibility or honor may have cost a few votes, it probably didn’t impact a large percentage of voters either way. After all, many of those same voters repeatedly supported Ford’s House campaigns. There were some that speculated that the smear campaign ads were part of a swiftboating effort against not just Ford’s campaigns but against his very person.
While there might have been merit to this claim had a constantly negative campaign been run against Ford or had there been any controversial issues other than enjoying the attention of women or following in a family legacy of politics, there is no merit in this campaign. When Harold Ford confronted Corker in Memphis outside the Wilson Air Center offices, some described the exchange as juvenile behavior or a desperate tactic near the end of a fierce campaign. It was instead a shrewd move designed to draw out an opponent who had repeatedly refused to engage in discussion on one of the key election issues – the War in Iraq.
While Ford requested seven face-to-face debates, Corker agreed to only three. Although attention-getting, however, and certainly proving the point that Ford was more interested in issues than mud-slinging, Corker walked away from Ford and returned to his press conference.
This exchange was probably a moot point to either campaign, however, due to its overall civility and lack of strong reaction. It is important to remember, in the long run, that Harold Ford, Jr. lost his Senate campaign to Bob Corker by less than 3% of the electorate of the state of Tennessee. This is important simply because it indicates that no one issue, no one policy, no on advertisement and no one debate – scheduled or not – lost Ford the election. Had a really controversial issue or occurrence existed, it surely would have affected the difference in the total vote by more than a mere 3%. Ford, simply put, lost a very close election. This does not make him less of a politician – but does provide valuable experience as he decides on his future.