Harold Ford

Maybe the most startling development of the last two weeks of Campaign ’06 has been the sudden meltdown of Harold Ford’s U.S. Senate prospects in Tennessee.

As near as anyone can tell, it’s not really his fault.

In mid-October, polls showed Ford, a five-term congressman from Memphis, pulling ahead of Republican Bob Corker, a not-at-all surprising result given that (a) the national current so strongly favored the Democrats; (b) the glib and telegenic Ford had shrewdly cultivated a red state-friendly image as a church-going, Pelosi-weary, Second Amendment enthusiast; (c) Corker, who failed in a 1994 Senate bid, had run a listless campaign that had put his party’s social conservative base to sleep.

Ford’s surge created considerable national buzz, since a win would make him the first African-American elected to the Senate from the South – and only the fourth African-American senator since reconstruction. In the last few weeks, though, his numbers have nosedived, and now he lags anywhere from three to 12 points behind Corker.

Ford, who was joined on the stump by Barack Obama over the weekend, claims he’s closing the gap, an assertion a recent Gallup poll seemed to support.

But to some observers, the race is already over, thanks to an ugly political truth: In the privacy of the voting booth, racism, however subtle, still exists. Ford, the theory goes, needs to be ahead in the polls heading into Election Day to offset the silent defections he’ll suffer when rural white voters – who may have told pollsters they’d vote for the Democratic Senate candidate – actually see Ford’s name on the ballot.

Similar scenarios have played out before. The polls said that Tom Bradley, then the Los Angeles mayor, seemed on track to become California’s first black governor in 1982 – a year when Bradley’s Democratic affiliation was a clear plus in elections across the country. But when the votes were tallied, Republican George Deukmejian outpolled Bradley by about 95,000 votes

It happens to Republicans, too.

In 2003, Bobby Jindal, the son of Indian immigrants and a super-educated rising political star, consistently led Kathleen Blanco in the race for governor of Louisiana, a state clearly trending toward Jindal’s Republican Party. But Blanco eked out a surprise victory – by carrying the state’s otherwise GOP-loyal Cajun Country areas.

It is against that backdrop that the Ford-Corker race (and, to a lesser degree, the contest between Robert Menendez and Tom Kean in New Jersey) is being watched. In the anti-GOP year of 2006, a Democrat with Ford’s conservative credentials should be able to win an open seat in Tennessee against a disorganized, publicly-awkward foe like Corker. To put it another way, Tennessee’s four other conservative Democratic congressmen – John Tanner, Jim Cooper, Bart Gordon and Lincoln Davis – would probably be ahead right now. And as a campaigner, Ford is stronger than all of them.

If he loses, it could have a chilling effect on Obama’s decision to run (or not) in 2008. And it could be some time before Democrats line up again so early and strongly for a black candidate in the South.

– Steve Kornacki