With their majority in the Senate potentially hanging in the balance, Republicans were bickering among themselves over an advertisement in the particularly nasty campaign in Tennessee that even some Republicans have denounced as racist.
The dispute pitted former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, the GOP candidate for the seat held by Senate Republican leader Bill Frist, against his own party leadership Tuesday after it rebuffed his call to pull the ad, which lampoons Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr.’s reputation as a man about town.
In the ad, a young white actress playing the stereotype of a “dumb blonde” talks about meeting Ford, a 36-year-old bachelor who is black, “at the Playboy party.” At the end of the ad, she winks and says to the camera, “Harold — call me.”
The ad brought immediate criticism from the Ford campaign and the NAACP, whose Washington office called it “a powerful innuendo that plays to pre-existing prejudices about African-American men and white women.”
Ford told MSNBC-TV: “I know that they are a little desperate and doing the things that you do when you get desperate in a campaign.”
Corker himself called the ad “distasteful” Tuesday, telling MSNBC-TV, “I think it ought to come down.” Meanwhile, Bill Cohen, a former Republican senator from Maine, criticized it in an interview on CNN as “a very serious appeal to a racist sentiment.”
Mehlman: Ad’s fine, and it’s not our fault
But Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said Tuesday that he saw nothing wrong with the ad.
“After the comments by Mr. Corker and former Sen. Cohen, I looked at the ad, and I don’t agree with that characterization of it,” Mehlman told NBC’s Washington bureau chief, Tim Russert, in an interview as part of MSNBC-TV’s daylong Battleground America report.
“I think that there is nothing more repugnant in our society than people who try to divide Americans along racial lines, and I would denounce any ad that I thought did,” said Mehlman, who addressed the NAACP last year, apologizing for the Republican Party’s race-tinged “Southern strategy” during the 1970s and ’80s.
“I happen not to believe that ad does,” he said, adding that even if he wanted to pull the ad, he couldn’t.
Even though a woman’s voice discloses that “the Republican National Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising,” Mehlman said the RNC was not, in fact, responsible. He said the ad was produced by an independent group contracted by the RNC, with whom he is prohibited from communicating.
“The way that process works under the campaign reform laws is I write a check to an independent individual and that person’s responsible for spending money in certain states,” he said. Beyond that, he said, the RNC is out of the loop.
Ford dismisses GOP explanation
But Ford said Republican leaders were being disingenuous.
“I do know that if my opponent wanted this ad pulled down, he could get it pulled down,” Ford said. White House press secretary Tony Snow appeared to support Ford on that point, telling Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” that “if he wants it to come off [the air], it’ll come off.”
For his part, Corker noted that Ford drove up in a bus to confront him at a press conference in Memphis over the weekend, an incident that he said “called into question whether he has the temperament, the comportment, if you will, to have the statesmanlike qualities that people look for in a United States senator.”
New headache as Corker struggles
The controversy comes at a bad time for Corker, who is struggling to hold on to what had been considered a safe Republican seat in a state that hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate in 18 years. But the new MSNBC/McClatchy poll released Tuesday shows the race as a virtual tie, with Corker’s 45 percent-to-43 percent lead falling within the statistical margin of error.
Corker’s lackluster campaign has vaulted Tennessee to the top of the list of too-close-to-call races that both parties believe could tip the balance in the Senate, along with vise-tight races in Virginia and Tennessee, where Democratic challengers are neck-and-neck with Republican incumbents.
Mehlman predicted Tuesday that the Republicans would hold onto both houses of Congress, but Sen. Elizabeth Dole, chairwoman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, acknowledged that her party was in a fight for its life.
“It's a very tough cycle,” Dole said on MSNBC-TV. “You know the midterm is always tougher when a president has been re-elected — tradition, history shows you it makes it even tougher.
“So we’ve known for well over a year ... that this was going to be a very tough, tough cycle — maybe the toughest in 20 years,” Dole added, saying she thought the party would just pull through in the end.
Democrats cautiously optimistic
Democratic campaign leaders were less willing to predict outright victory, but they said on MSNBC that the picture was looking good for them.
“I think we have a good shot in a lot of states that formerly voted for the president and his party,” said Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
“I think people want to change, particularly, interestingly enough, in the more traditional states — the rural states,” he added. “I think we’ve got a great shot in Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia, to be honest with you. I think we can win all three of those.”
Rep. Christopher van Hollen, D-Md., co-chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, likewise refused to go out on a limb, but he said all the trends were favorable. Traditionally, he said, races tend to shake out in the last few weeks of the campaign, but this year, races in reliably Republican districts are falling one by one into the undecided column as Election Day approaches — 58 of them now, by his count.
“I’d rather be holding the hand that the Democrats have right now than the Republicans,” van Hollen said.