I'm not sure people who don't live in Tennessee (I'm in Nashville) have a real grasp on what's going on here.
It's true that Tennessee is not Kansas or Nebraska. The state has voted for every Presidential contest winner since 1960, including Clinton and Gore twice. Many people will tell you Gore lost here in 2000 because he totally took the state for granted and didn't even campaign, except for one last minute appearance in east Tennessee. Meanwhile, the GOP brought in Charlton Heston and whipped up the rural white vote, telling 'em the Dems would take away their guns. (Gore's failure can be put somewhat in context by the knowledge that Gore won his most recent Senate races (1982, 1988) by 80-percent margins.) The conventional wisdom hereabouts is that he left the state once he became VP and didn't work hard enough to stay in touch with his constituents.
Memphis is hugely important in Tennessee politics (for Dems anyway), because it's 600,000 votes out of the state's 4 million or so registered voters. Nashville weighs in second at about 3, 4 hundred thousand, depending on turnout. However, the Republican Party in the state is smart and has gone after the Nashville Republican suburbs (Williamson County) with a vengeance.
There are other dynamics at play. For decades, the state House and Senate were held by the Democrats. There are widespread allegations of abuse, capped this year by an attempt at ethics reform by Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen (more on him later). The Dems lost the state Senate in 2004, after Bredesen campaigned heavily for three candidates - and all three of them lost.
In a nutshell, the state party is in serious disarray. There are six DNC members - several of which are so old they don't even attend DNC meetings or do much of anything. The state executive committee is moribund. In fairness, it's a tough coalition to put together. Democrats in Memphis are either urban blacks or progressive whites. Nashville has a huge creative community of songwriters, artists, college students and employees (there are seven colleges, with a sum total of a few hundred thousand students, staff and administrators - Vanderbilt, Belmont, Tennessee State). So issues that play in rural Tennessee, such as God and guns, are way too conservative for voters in Memphis and Nashville. Usually statewide candidates take the Republican-lite approach, and suffer when Democratic voters in Memphis and Nashville stay home in droves.
Bredesen stands to be re-elected in 2006. Right now, he's unopposed, and is rumored to be considering New Hampshire in 2008. However, here in Nashville, many Democrats are deeply angry with him. In 2003, his first year in office, he hired the former head of the state AFL-CIO to gut workman's comp regulations, a rift which is still out in the open between the governor and the labor community. More recently, he threw 300,000 people off the state's health insurance plan while his Administration concealed information from the state legislature about the true condition of the program and the people who stood to be removed. (He campaigned on TennCare reform - his reforms seemed to involve the acceptance of money from the health care industry and no attempt at all to curb allegations of fraud and abuse on the part of that same industry.) The solution for him was removal of the sickest enrollees, many of whom are now dying. There's talk of a 'safety net', but there are allegations that insurance companies have been discouraged from participating. This culminated with a group of sick individuals camping out in his office for a period of weeks.
Most recently, Bredesen has been embroiled in a scandal involving his deputy governor, Dave Cooley, who's been promoting state troopers based on campaign contributions. Check out www.tennessean.com for more info on that one, it's been all over the front page this week.
Long story short, some party activists have pledged to sit out 2006 and some expect the turnout in Nashville not to be terrifically good. Memphis will come out for Ford, but there is no energized base in other areas to speak of. Bredesen is not involved with Nashville politics, despite having been mayor of the city - he didn't even send a representative to the county's first annual major fundraiser, the Gore Dinner held last July. Knoxville and Chattanooga are the only other cities in the state approaching any shade of blue in local elections, and both of them went for Bush by 60-40 margins in '04.
Here's a strange one for you, though - the Republicans LOVE Bredesen. Some argue that's why they won't run a candidate against him, although the conventional wisdom is that nobody wants to go up against his hundreds of millions of personal fortune he made from a durable health care products business he sold some years ago. So many Republicans will show up to vote for Bredesen...and that may bode badly for Ford, since you can bet they'll split their ticket.
Recently I heard a rumor that former GOP Chair Beth Harwell is salivating to run against Bredesen, but the GOP won't let her, intending instead to keep their powder dry and take control of the state House. Again, Bredesen campaigned hard for three Senate candidates in 2004 (Larry Trail, Joann Graves, and one other)...all three of them lost. The TN Republicans are very smart, and this might not be a bad strategy for them.
As much as it pains me to say this, I suspect there are still many rural whites who won't consider voting for a black man. Ford is not perceived as a hard worker statewide (he was on Kerry's national steering committee and did nothing to help him in Tennessee other than a couple of appearances.) Most of his money is coming from out of state. He's a darling in Washington, which has his campaign employees in thrall thinking they can get him elected here. And worst of all, his uncle John Ford, who resigned from the state Senate this year, has been broadcast all over the state on tape accepting bribes from an FBI undercover agent. You can bet your bottom dollar the Republicans will time John Ford's trial for September 2006, and the airwaves will be full of the Ford name in conjunction with ethics violations.
Now, if the Republicans nominate Van Hilleary - a conservative extremist who is perceived as an intellectual lightweight - there may be some hope. But what Ford would have to do, as mentioned above, is not make speeches in which he talks about his love for the Iraq war and his generally conservative social philosophies in order to appeal to the hardcore Democratic vote in Memphis and Nashville. Doing so would alienate the rural whites - who probably aren't going to vote for him anyway. So you have to feel for the guy. In a sense he's damned whatever he does.
DO NOT FORGET that this state is the home of Bill Frist, who will do whatever he has to do to ensure massive fundage for Tennessee from the national GOP. This goes double since he's got 2008 aspirations.
In short, I think this is a really long shot. Y'all go on and get excited about it, because miracles do happen, but it'd take a major scandal on the part of the state GOP to blow this out of the water for either Ed Bryant or Corker. It would have helped had Kerry run a real campaign here - see the "Tennessee has voted for every Presidential winner since 1960" maxim - but no amount of entreaties to the national staff would make them see this as a state in play. So in a way the national party reaps what it sows here.
A few clarifying details...
The state AFL-CIO has endorsed Ford, but they're still pissed at Bredesen, so that'll most likely cut back on what they're willing to do for the joint ticket.
Nashville is the state capital, so much of what makes the news here about state doings affects local turnout.
Memphis, three hours west, is the largest city in the state, at about twice the size of Nashville. It's also where Harold Ford is from; Bredesen is from Nashville; there's a historic rivalry between the two cities, tho it's usually not bad enough to stop Democrats in either city from turning out to vote for the guy from the other town (and I do mean guy. Tennessee ranks 49 out of the 50 states for women's participation in politics, with a whopping 14% of our state House and Senate being women. This is just not a progressive state - and the state Democratic Party is partly to blame for that, since they don't put any premium at all on helping young, female or diverse candidates gain a toehold. The good-ol-boy network is living large here, mostly in the person of Jimmy Naifeh and some other scions in charge of the state legislature.
State Sen. Rosalind Kurita, Harold Ford's primary opponent, has been in the Senate for a dozen years - she's got plenty of experience and is a credible candidate. The state Party has held several events without even inviting her. It's been a foregone conclusion Ford would be the nominee, I suspect due to his status as a national party darling. However, you'd think SOMEBODY in the state Democratic power structure would care this state has never had a woman governor, or senator...only four women have ever served in Congress from here, and the only one who's in now is ultraconservative Marsha Blackburn. It's just repugnant.)
p.s. I neglected to mention another kiss of death: the Tennessee legislature is seriously considering the purchase of Diebold voting machines. My beloved Davidson County (Nashville) is considering ES&S, implicated in the Ohio 2004 debacle.
Yep. Some days it's just hard to get up with too much enthusiasm for anything happening here...
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