Primary Primer: Cohen Fights Numbers

Posted August 1, 2008 at 5:16pm

The marquee primary contest taking place Thursday in Tennessee pits Rep. Steve Cohen (D) against attorney Nikki Tinker (D) in a battle that will decide whether Cohen will be allowed to maintain his unique role as the only white House Member to represent a majority-black district.

Since he won his 2006 primary, Cohen has been at the center of many discussions on race and politics, and his re-election has been a racially charged affair. Some of his critics in the Memphis-based 9th district have claimed that his primary victory was simply the result of his being the one top-tier white candidate in a primary that split the minority vote among a dozen black candidates.

This time around, several of those critics worked to limit the number of black candidates who entered the contest.

Tinker came in second to Cohen in the 2006 primary, and her second attempt to win the seat has been championed by a few members of the Congressional Black Caucus, notably Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio).

But Cohen is not without his own supporters in the Caucus. Democratic Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (Ill.) and House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (Mich.) have cut radio ads for Cohen’s campaign.

As of mid-July, Cohen had a healthy cash-on-hand advantage over Tinker with $672,000 in the bank compared with her $99,000. But in the final weeks of the campaign, Tinker has continued to benefit financially from the support of the fundraising powerhouse EMILY’s List, which backs Democratic women who support abortion rights.

Cohen’s poll numbers have shown him well ahead in the race, and his campaign has put forward a robust television presence in the final stage of the primary campaign.

Last week, Cohen also got a big PR boost as a result of the House taking up and passing a resolution that he authored early in the 110th Congress apologizing to blacks for slavery and racial segregation in the United States.

The other interesting primary taking place in Tennessee on Thursday pits 7th district GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn against Shelby County Register of Deeds Tom Leatherwood (R).

Although Blackburn has far outraised Leatherwood in the primary contest, Leatherwood has been relentless in his attacks on Blackburn, calling into question her ethics — especially after questions arose over her financial disclosure filings. Leatherwood released polling numbers earlier this month showing that he was down 11 points but that the gap was closing.