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« Strategy Memo: Bucking Trends | Blog Home Page | CA 26: Dreier +12 »

Cohen Beats Tinker, Racial Tension

Rep. Steve Cohen, who won just 31% of the primary vote in a crowded field in 2006, beat former Congressional aide and attorney Nikki Tinker by a 79%-19% margin to retain the Democratic nomination in Tennessee's Ninth District. In the Memphis-based seat where about 60% of the population is African American, a white Jewish Democrat winning a second term by such a vast margin came as a surprise to many.

Tinker, who is African American, went on the attack late in the campaign, using language and images in advertisements that invoked the Ku Klux Klan and toed other racial lines. But Cohen, a former State Senator and local official for three decades, confidently predicted victory all along, and turned some of the attacks back against Tinker.

Too, Cohen had a record he could claim helped his African American constituents. After being denied entry to the Congressional Black Caucus last year, Cohen pursued a resolution in the House apologizing for slavery, seeing it pass the House just before adjournment for August recess.

But race still played a role in the contest. After an advertisement, which hit Cohen for failing to vote to remove a statue of Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest (Cohen said the board on which he sat, a planning commission, had no jurisdiction over the matter) and another that could be construed as attacking Cohen for being Jewish, even Tinker supporters started making noise.

Tinker had been endorsed by EMILY's List, the prominent Democratic group that backs pro-choice women, but on the day of the primary, the organization rolled out six new endorsements instead of focusing completely on their candidate in Tennessee. "We were shocked to see the recent ads run by the Nikki Tinker for Congress campaign. We believe the ads are offensive and divisive," said the group's president, Ellen Malcolm, in a statement to The Scorecard. "EMILY's List does not condone or support these types of attacks."

Barack Obama and Harold Ford Jr., neither of whom got involved in the contest between Cohen and Tinker, issued statements yesterday as well. "These incendiary and personal attacks have no place in our politics, and will do nothing to help the good people of Tennessee," Obama said in a statement.

"Whenever race, religion or gender is invoked in a political contest, it generally means the candidate has run out of legitimate arguments for why he/she should be elected," added Ford in his own statement, who represented the district in Congress before his failed run for Senate in 2006. Ford's rebuke was particularly stinging for Tinker: The former congressman, whose family had held the seat since 1974, helped Tinker get her start in politics, hiring her as his campaign manager.

The seat gave John Kerry 70% of the vote in 2004 and is the state's strongest Democratic-performing seat, virtually guaranteeing Cohen a second term even with three independent candidates on the ballot.