It's an unfortunate fact of the race to fill the Tennessee Senate seat for retiring Bill Frist that Tennesseans will be deluged, smothered, with stories about Representative Harold Ford, Jr. He has nearly no chance of winning, barring a surprise screw-up which, with Tennessee Republicans, should never be discounted. After all, even with a majority in the State Senate they still couldn't elect one of their own as Lt. Governor. But Ford has two facts on his side. He has a national presence and reputation, which (like Frist) makes him the subject of lots of "hometown boy makes good" stories. And, he's a Democrat. The state's newspapers are still filled with unbending Democratic editorialists and reporters who view Ford as their next great hope in stemming Tennessee's still-rising Republican tide. It matters not at all how the Republicans conduct their campaign, nor how magnetic their final candidate is (ha!), Ford will dominate the coverage. It doesn't matter how far ahead his opponent is, and he will be every step of the way; Ford will dominate. It doesn't matter who wins, Ford will get sympathetic post-election coverage that will focus on his "gracious in defeat" manner or his "surprising" showing. These are the facts in Tennessee. Democrats who do well nationally get nearly sycophantic press coverage; successful Republicans are deferred to and respected but do not receive the same style of treatment.
For those without much time, or interest at this point, you can read this brief roundup of the landscape from the Memphis Commercial Appeal. (Registration required.)
But Harold Ford, Jr. will lose. So let's get him out of the way. Harold Ford is the presumptive nominee on the Democratic side. He has the national reputation and a career in the House that give him that all-important edge over any State-level competitor. He's a rising star among the national Democratic leadership, and a would-be heir both to the star power of Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Committee's fading legacy.
He's one of a coming breed of post-Civil Rights Era black politicians. He is a black candidate acceptable, and even attractive, to a lot of whites; able to speak the bland pieties of politics without recourse to black cadences like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Ford can "be black" without having to play the race card. He doesn't automatically cause white liberal guilt meters to twitch with his merest utterances.
On the state level, however, he is still a Ford. Their behavior has filled newspaper pages and television screens for decades. His uncle John, the legendary State Senator who lives his life like an armed and dangerous 19th Century Mormon, and his father Harold, Sr. who after financial scandals bequeathed his seat to his son in a dynastic display worthy of a Kennedy, have created lasting memories on Tennesseans. Add to that the less-well known Memphis City Council Fords and other local relatives, and you have an extended family whose whiff is deeply unpleasant to many Tennesseans; even some Democrats will curl their lip at the mention of the Ford name. Whatever national cachet he possesses will always lose some of its potency inside the state because of that. Nationally, the press seems little interested in the connections, but in the heat of a high-profile, do-or-die (for Democrats) Senate race that may change.