On a recent spring morning, Harold Ford Jr. found himself in a minor traffic jam on a winding, hilly road in rural Robertson County, Tennessee. Up ahead, a truck was depositing a double- wide house at its new address on a grassy roadside patch. This is Bush territory—the president carried the county by 22 percent in 2004. Both culturally and geographically, it is a long way from Memphis, Ford’s home and political base.
Ford was making a series of campaign stops that day. At the first, a YMCA, he tried to greet a burly middle-aged man in a clammy hallway. “Harold Ford, nice to see you!” he said. With a grunt, the man dropped his eyes, lowered his shoulder like a running back hitting an open hole, and marched onward. Ford sidled up to me and lowered his voice. “This is a very heavily Republican county,” he said wearily.
The same goes for much of Tennessee, and Ford’s weariness is understandable. He could hardly have more riding on his shoulders. To regain control of the Senate, Democrats need to pick up six seats on November 7. Given the GOP’s malaise and the particulars of various races, a four- or five-seat Democratic pickup looks quite plausible. Getting over the hump and retaking the Senate, however, will be a mightier challenge—and Ford’s could be the make-or-break race. “I think if there’s a really, really big night for the Democrats, Tennessee is the key state,” says Charlie Cook, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “If Republicans can hold Tennessee, they hold on to the Senate. And if Democrats can win Tennessee, they win the Senate.”
For Ford, the stakes are more personal. Should he win, he will become the first African-American senator from the old Confederacy since Reconstruction. He will also take a grand step toward fulfilling the sky-high expectations that greeted him when he arrived in Congress a decade ago—expectations that, by some accounts, he has yet to match. Ford’s candidacy is a kind of daredevil stunt. If he pulls it off, he’ll be showered in glory as a Democrat—a black Democrat, no less—who, at the still-tender age of thirty-six, managed to pick the red-state lock. But by running for the Senate, Ford is surrendering a House seat that he could likely have kept for a long, comfortable Washington career. And should he lose, one of the most extravagantly hyped political careers of the past decade could grind to a halt.
As Ford stumped in Robertson County, it was often hard to tell which party he calls home. In speeches about the budget deficit, gas prices, and chaos in Iraq, Ford avoided party labels. He rarely mentioned George W. Bush’s name—and when he did, it was usually to criticize Bush from the right. Meeting with firefighters, Ford complained that Bush’s immigration plan was, in effect, too liberal because it offers “amnesty” to illegal aliens. Speaking before YMCA board members, he bragged that he has never voted for an unbalanced budget. And when a high-school student asked him about gay marriage, Ford didn’t hesitate: “I grew up in a way where guys don’t get married. I’m just not into that,” he said.
At times, Ford sounded like a third-party, pox-on-both-houses populist. “I see it in Washington every day. All those big jokers talking, and nothing happens,” he vented to the firefighters. “You’ve got a bunch of cowards in Congress.” Had Ross Perot inhabited the body of a young black man?
Of course, this approach may be Ford’s only hope for winning a Senate seat in Tennessee. Although Democrats were competitive in this state not too long ago—Bill Clinton carried it twice, and Democrats held both Senate seats in the early 1990s—in the past decade or so, Tennessee has turned against them in federal elections. In 2000, Al Gore suffered the rare humiliation of losing his home state. Tennessee has become a case study in the migration to the GOP of southern voters who feel alienated from Democrats over “values” issues like guns, abortion, and gay rights.
Yet these are grim days for Republicans, even in the South. An April 2006 SurveyUSA poll showed Bush’s Tennessee approval rating at an anemic 42 percent. Local factors are on Ford’s side, too. Three Republicans—none considered terribly formidable—are currently fighting out a Senate primary likely to leave the winner bloodied and impoverished. According to Cook, this may be the best chance since the 1980s for a Democrat to win a Senate seat in Tennessee. But here’s the problem: this may be the worst time in Tennessee politics to be named “Ford.”
Ford followed a gilded path into politics. His father, Harold Ford Sr., was a liberal Memphis congressman for twenty-two years. When his father retired in 1996, “Junior,” as he’s often called, ran for his dad’s seat and won. He was just twenty-six, but he was primed for great things. “I have been training for this since I was a kid,” he would say. Ford had grown up in Washington, where he attended the elite St. Albans School, and then went on to the University of Pennsylvania. Months after his graduation from University of Michigan Law School, Ford was in Congress. Washington received him as an heir to Bill Clinton’s then-ascendant brand of Democratic centrism—Ford had broken sharply with his father’s liberalism—and the Capitol buzzed over his Clintonian ability to charm voters and the press. His arrival was celebrated in a long New York Times Magazine profile that placed him on the national political map.
His House career, however, has been less charmed. Some Democrats say Ford has been a disappointment, a political climber less interested (and less distinguished) in legislative accomplishment than in cultivating his own image. Some of his star turns have irritated fellow Democrats. Ford won the prized slot as keynote speaker at the 2000 Democratic convention—the very slot that would make Barack Obama so famous four years later. But Gore campaign aides disliked his speech and, after finding him obstinate about changing it, bumped him out of prime time. “It’s about lack of discipline,” says a Democratic operative who has worked with Ford, noting that he is famously late to meetings, or absent altogether. Thus some were put off when Ford mounted an audacious 2002 bid for House Democratic leader. Ford presented himself as a pro–Iraq War, centrist alternative to the liberal Nancy Pelosi, but he was crushed, by a 177–29 vote.