Thursday, October 26, 2006

Tennessee Senate Race Stirs Racial Passions

This morning's New York Times has an analysis of the racially inflammatory advertisement Republicans have aired against Representative Harold Ford in theTennessee Senate campaign:

The Tennessee Senate race, one of the most competitive and potentially decisive battles of the midterm election, became even more unpredictable this week after a furor over a Republican television commercial that stood out even in a year of negative advertising.

The commercial, financed by the Republican National Committee, was aimed at Representative Harold E. Ford Jr., the black Democrat from Memphis whose campaign for the Senate this year has kept the Republicans on the defensive in a state where they never expected to have trouble holding the seat.

The spot, which was first broadcast last week and was disappearing from the air on Wednesday, featured a series of people in mock man-on-the street interviews talking sarcastically about Mr. Ford and his stands on issues including the estate tax and national security.

The controversy erupted over one of the people featured: an attractive white woman, bare-shouldered, who declares that she met Mr. Ford at a “Playboy party,” and closes the commercial by looking into the camera and saying, with a wink, “Harold, call me.”

A spokeswoman for Mr. Ford, who is single, said he was one of 3,000 people who attended a Playboy party at the Super Bowl last year in Jacksonville, Fla.

Critics asserted that the advertisement was a clear effort to play to racial stereotypes and fears, essentially, playing the race card in an election where Mr. Ford is trying to break a century of history and become the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction.
There's a substantial history of racial stereotyping in Republican campaign advertisements.

The article makes mention of the 1988 presidential campaign, in which
Lee Atwater and the Republicans ran the racially-charged Willie Horton ads against Michael Dukakis in a successful effort to paint the Massachusetts governor as soft on crime.

I first thought about Jesse Helms's 1990 Senate campaign upon hearing about the Tennessee controversy. Helm's ran for reelection that year against Harvey Gantt, an African American who was gaining in the polls in the final weeks of the race. The Helms campaign ran an inflammatory anti-affirmative action adverstisment in response. This 2001 article by David Broder has the background:
In 1990, locked in a tight race with an African American Democrat, former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt, Helms aired a final-week TV ad that showed a pair of white hands crumpling a rejection letter, while an announcer said, "You needed that job and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota."
Dukakis lost in 1988 and Helms was returned to the Senate in 1990, and racially-sensitive ads were credited with contributing to both of those outcomes. If Ford's challenger, Bob Corker, pulls out a victory in the Tennessee race on November 7, some might credit the "Hey Harold" ad as putting him over the top.

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