Good News for Dems in South: Voters May Overcome Their Racism

Correspondent Adam Nossiter, who once lamented the "deficiencies in education" among Southerners, this Tuesday pensa hopeful pieceon future Democratic prospects in the region: "Is the South Truly a Dead Zone for Democrats?"

He again tackles the Tennessee Senate race, in which black Democrat Harold Ford Jr. lost to Republican Bob Corker. After the election, Nossiter implied white racism was a major factor in Corker's win, one of the few Republican bright spots of the 2006 campaign cycle.

Today he backs off, a little, and suggests racism was just one factor. He collects evidence at a "mostly white" rally for a Democrat. (Never mind that Tennessee, like all but four states in the union, is "mostly white."

"In many ways, however, it was the closely watched Senate race in Tennessee that was most indicative of the problems and the promise of the Democrats' future in the region.

"At one level, Mr. Ford's loss to the Republican, Bob Corker, was simply a reiteration of an ancient reality for Democrats in the South: black candidates in statewide races are unlikely to win because they face a majority-white electorate, and most whites do not vote for blacks. In other words, there is a challenge with the voters, not the candidate, which is one of Mr. Schaller's arguments.

"For example, at an election-eve rally in rural Centerville, about 65 miles west of Nashville, John C. Tidwell, the local Democratic state representative, looked out over the small, mostly white crowd and said, 'There are people spread out here that wouldn't vote for' Mr. Ford 'even if he were Moses.' Mr. Tidwell used a slur for a black man, not Mr. Ford's name.

"Another attendee, Wes Morgan, backed up Mr. Tidwell's observation: Mr. Ford's race was a tough sell in Hickman County, which includes Centerville. 'You're still in the country,' said Mr. Morgan, an emergency medical technician. 'A lot of people say, "Ain't no way my grandfather would have voted for a black man."'

Nossiter finally suggests that it wasn't all racism.

"Yet even given that reality, Mr. Ford came remarkably close, winning 48 percent of the vote. Why he did not do better was suggested by Mr. Tidwell's next comment, which also hinted at why Mr. Ford's racial background was not the only factor in his loss.

"'These people are struggling with their vote,' Mr. Tidwell said. 'They don't like the Republicans, but they don't like a Ford black boy either.' Here the racially charged language was accompanied by the Ford name, and for many in Tennessee, that carried a specific meaning.


"Voters knew that several members of the politically active Ford family had been caught up in legal and ethical problems, including Mr. Ford's father and predecessor in Congress, Harold Ford Sr., who was acquitted on federal corruption charges.

"'The Ford name has a lot of baggage in West Tennessee,' said Will T. Cheek, a member of the Democratic National Committee in Nashville.

"That voters might have considered the Fords less than trustworthy could have been reinforced in the Senate race, in the view of some Tennessee Democrats, by the candidate's own late-breaking genuflections toward his faith, by his denunciations of same-sex marriage and by other signals of a swing to the right.

"As it happened, white Democrats did turn out for Mr. Ford in Tennessee, just not in sufficient numbers, suggesting that a different candidate, and not necessarily a white one, could have been elected."

Strangely, this time around Nossiter doesn't mention the RNC campaign ad mocking Harold Ford for attending a Playboy Magazine party, an advertisement made controversial by accusations of racism both from Democrats and liberal media outlets including the Times.