Yet all presumably will be forgiven if Ford wins come November. And that’s the goal that he’s been pursuing, with a startling single-mindedness, these many years. During his day in Robertson County, people routinely greeted him by saying, “I’ve seen you on television!”—a payoff from his intense courtship of the media, including conservative outlets like Fox News, where Ford has appeared more than forty times in the past five years. He’s also a frequent guest of the cantankerous Don Imus (who is prone to saying things like “When my friend Harold Ford Jr. is elected president …”). Ford watchers call this part of a grander design. “Ford’s been positioning himself to run for statewide office for quite a while,” says Michael Nelson, a political-science professor at Rhodes College in Memphis. “Although he represents a district that is majority black, he’s been doing his best to appear on [shows] that moderate-to-conservative voters tune in to.”
Likewise, by most accounts Ford never really believed he could beat Pelosi—his goals were publicity and ideological positioning. If that’s true, the gambit worked. Tennessee newspapers called his bid “gutsy,” a display of “moxie.” In case anyone missed the point, Ford even hugged a then-popular George Bush on national television after last year’s State of the Union address. “I love my president,” he said last summer. “I love him personally.”
Still, Ford faces a hard road to victory. Republicans are bashing him as a liberal elitist with expensive tastes, and polling suggests that his relentless appeals to conservatives have not entirely inoculated him against such charges.
Ultimately, however, the largest threat to Ford’s campaign may be something that no amount of advance planning could have changed: his last name. A history of alleged corruption runs through the Ford clan. In 1987, Ford’s father was indicted on bank-fraud charges (he was later acquitted). His uncle Emmitt, a former state representative, was indicted on insurance-fraud charges and resigned his seat in 1981. And the very day after Ford announced his Senate bid last May, his uncle John, a state senator, was indicted in a bribery sting.
“He wouldn’t be a congressman today if his last name wasn’t Ford. But the fact that his last name is Ford is going to make it significantly harder for him to be a senator from Tennessee,” says John Ryder, a prominent Republican lawyer in Memphis. Ford aides protest that he has fifteen aunts and uncles and can’t be held accountable for them. Still, says Rhodes College’s Nelson, “everything we know about politics and how voters pay attention to politics makes it hard for me to believe he doesn’t have a problem there.” Nor does it help that John Ford’s trial is scheduled for October. How ironic it would be if Harold Ford Jr. should find this chance at stardom—and redemption from his perceived failings—ruined by the family name that provided his political platform.
But nothing seems preordained in this race—or in politics more generally this year. At a firehouse in Robertson County, Ford found himself being grilled by Dustin Dudley, a firefighter watching from the back of the room. “If you get elected, I’m just wondering what you’re gonna do that’s really gonna make a difference at the state and the local level,” said the man, with a skeptical smirk. Irritated by this challenge, Ford briefly grew testy. Did Dudley know, Ford asked, the difference between the House and the Senate? (He didn’t.) Could he name Tennessee’s senators? (No.) “You’re coming back at me a little bit, I’m gonna come back at you!” Ford snapped. But then Ford pivoted and began trying to win the man over, arguing that Dudley’s Republican senators had not delivered results. Later, I asked Dudley what he made of Ford. “Usually I vote Republican,” he drawled. But this year would probably be different. “Everybody here pretty much seemed to have a good opinion of him; he pretty much won over the crowd, so to speak,” he said. “I enjoyed the conversation and would look forward to seeing him here again if he gets back into office.” In the end, Harold Ford’s trip hadn’t been a waste of time at all.