As Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D) prepares to run for the seat being vacated by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R) in 2006, he faces a daunting record of failure for black candidates seeking Senate seats in the South.
In the past two decades, a handful of ambitious black Democrats have tried and failed to win Senate elections despite strong party backing and sterling credentials.
The most prominent of those are former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who lost an open-seat race to now-Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) in 2002, and former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, defeated in both 1990 and 1996 by then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).
Former Rep. Denise Majette (Ga.), who is black, lost badly to now-Sen. Johnny Isakson (R) in 2004, but was never given a real chance of winning by the national party.
Both Kirk and Gantt became national figures during their respective races — raising millions of dollars from Democrats across the country — but ultimately came up well short of victory due to an inability to convince a significant number of white voters to cast a ballot for them.
Kirk won more than 90 percent of the black vote in Texas but still finished 12 points behind Cornyn, despite matching the Republican by spending more than $9 million on the race.
David Bositis, a senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said that “there is still racially polarized voting in the South,” but added that because Tennessee is a border state Ford may run into less of a roadblock than Gantt and Kirk did.
Blacks make up approximately 16 percent of Tennessee’s population, slightly smaller than the 21 percent in North Carolina and slightly larger than the 11 percent in Texas. Texas also has a substantial Hispanic population, 32 percent.
Ever since his 1996 election at age 26 to a Memphis-area seat previously held by his father, Ford has been seen as perhaps the best chance for a black candidate to break the streak of statewide defeats in the South.
Prior to the overwhelming victory of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) last cycle, Ford was the odds-on bet to be the first black male Democrat elected to the Senate. (Massachusetts sent Republican Ed Brooke to the Senate in 1966 and 1972. He was the first black person elected to the Senate by popular vote.)
The Tennessee Member initially contemplated a Senate run in 2000 against Frist but ultimately backed away from what was seen as a long-shot candidacy.
In 2002, Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) retired from his seat but Ford deferred to fellow Rep. Bob Clement (D). Despite no serious Democratic primary opposition, Clement never came close to defeating former Gov. Lamar Alexander (R) in the general election.
For the past two years, Ford has been traveling the state to raise his profile and beef up his campaign war chest — he ended 2004 with $1.1 million on hand — in preparation for the 2006 Senate race. He has also recently hired Harrison Hickman to handle the polling for his Senate bid.
Ford is likely to have nominal primary opposition in state Sen. Rosalind Kurita. Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell has not ruled out the contest but is not considered a likely candidate.
The Republican field is likely to include Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, former Rep. Ed Bryant and state Rep. Beth Harwell.
Though Ford is not regularly in touch with the black Senate candidates who have preceded him, there is much he could learn, according to Democratic pollster Fred Yang.
The past races are “absolutely instructive,” said Yang, who is the pollster for Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D).
“Ford can learn things to do and things not to do,” especially in the case of Gantt’s two losses, Yang added.
Gantt said that the most important lesson he learned during his races is that a black candidate has “to run a campaign that appeals to a broad cross-section of citizens.”
“When people leave a district or a more well-defined constituency they often miscalculate how they leverage their appeal to [a] broad constituency,” he said.
Majette echoed that sentiment, pointing out that in order for Ford to win, “he is going to have to find a way to connect with people across the state” and not “focus on one particular gender or demographic.”
In her own race, Majette struggled to grow beyond her base in DeKalb County, which includes a number of black areas near Atlanta. She won DeKalb by nearly 80,000 votes, but Isakson more than made up that margin in suburban and rural Georgia.
Ford’s 9th district is almost 60 percent black, according to the 2000 Census — by far the biggest black population of any of the state’s nine Congressional seats.
He also hails from perhaps the best-known black family in the state, which is likely to be a mixed blessing at best. His father held the Congressional seat for 22 years; his uncle, John Ford, is a controversial state Senator; another uncle, Joe Ford, served on the Memphis City Council, lost a bid for mayor and is now a Shelby County commissioner.
The other major potential pitfall for Ford as a result of his race is the increased willingness of voters to accept the portrayal of black politicians as liberals, a term of derision and, typically, political defeat in the South.
“He is going to be labeled a liberal because people make an assumption that he is going to be interested in issues of equity and justice,” Gantt said.
The former mayor added that for Ford to be successful, he must “spend considerable time developing a very appealing platform to the great middle.”
Obviously wary of the liberal tag, Ford has carefully cast himself as a moderate during his four terms in Congress, even joining the centrist Blue Dog Coalition.
Ford further burnished his moderate credentials following the 2002 elections when he ran a quixotic challenge for House Minority Leader against California Rep. Nancy Pelosi.
The Tennessean cast himself as the moderate alternative to Pelosi in a move that was seen as much through the lens of 2006 as 2002 since he had such a small chance of winning. He lost the race 177-29.
Past history proves that a record of moderation may not be enough.
Kirk was widely respected by the white Dallas business community for his handling of the city’s economy but when put in a partisan federal race, he found himself victimized by the liberal label — as many Southern Democrats do.
Kirk insisted that race was not the deciding factor in his loss, but acknowledged the reality of history.
“Until somebody runs and wins, it always matters,” he said.