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RealClearPolitics Politics Nation Blog

 

Blog Home Page --> House -- Tennessee -- 09

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.

TN Dem Faces Tough Fight

Freshman Democrat Steve Cohen faces a difficult rematch this year that could rob him of his seat in a district where racial tensions bubble just under the surface. Cohen, whose district includes Memphis in Tennessee's southwestern corner, is one of a very few white members of Congress who represents a majority-minority district, which Harold Ford vacated to make his ill-fated Senate bid.

In 2006, Cohen, a long-time State Senator, barely beat Nikki Tinker, a former aide to Ford, with just 31% in a 15-way primary. Tinker was one of several serious African American candidates, while Cohen was the only serious white candidate. Cohen went on to win the general with 60% of the vote, though the second-place finisher, Jake Ford, Harold's brother, took 22% as an independent. This Congress is the first in more than 30 years that a Ford has not represented the seat.

Nearly 60% of the district's voters are African American, and, as a measure of how crucial their support is in a primary, Cohen initially sought to join the Congressional Black Caucus. CBC leaders had none of it, and Cohen dropped his bid.

This year, Tinker is running again, and she's hitched her wagon straight to Barack Obama's, arguing that she represents the most change possible. While that might spell bad news for Cohen, he actually benefits from Jake Ford's re-entry into the race, this time as a Democrat. Tinker is the more polished candidate, and she raised $250,000 -- an impressive amount for an intra-party challenger -- through the end of 2007, though Ford will help split the African American vote.

Cohen's $521,000 in the bank is a not-insubstantial sum, and both candidates will spend the vast majority of their money in the August primary. President Bush managed just 30% of the vote in 2004, and given what is expected to be heavy turnout in a presidential contest, the Democratic nominee is expected to waltz to victory in November.

But that primary is expected to be bloody, and racially-tinged. Whether Cohen can stave off Tinker and Ford will be determined by how many African American voters he can move to his column, and the percentage of white voters who are on his side.

For Tinker, the key to victory is uniting the black community around her candidacy, marginalizing Ford and casting the contest as a two-way battle between herself and the incumbent. If she is able to do that, she will likely knock off incumbent Cohen. The task won't be easy, though: Ford's name identification is through the roof, thanks to his brother and his father, who held the seat for years before Harold Jr. came along.

Update: The Memphis Flyer reports today that Jake Ford returned to the elections office yesterday to re-file for the race as an independent instead of a Democrat. His second bid for office could be just as difficult as his first, but by running as an independent he's given Tinker a serious leg up in the primary.