Tennessee Democrats Seek to Mobilize 'Drop-Off' Voters

By Shailagh Murray
Sunday, October 29, 2006

While Republican Bob Corker and Democratic Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. slug it out in the Tennessee Senate race, voters there are already going to the polls in record numbers. Early voting began in the state Oct. 18, and turnout is reported to be especially high in Ford's home town of Memphis.

Ford has had a difficult couple of weeks, as Corker and his GOP allies have aired a series of tough ads against the five-term congressman, including two that Democrats decried for what they saw as racist overtones.

Nevertheless, the Ford campaign sees some bright spots in the final push. The portion of the electorate that remains undecided, about 10 percent, consists of many moderate to conservative women who are angry about the war in Iraq and with President Bush. Ford officials believe this group may be more open to voting for a black Democrat than are Republican-leaning males, who are breaking for Corker.

Second, to counter the Republicans' potent turnout operation, Democrats have zeroed in on 200,000 voters who party officials believe could push Ford over the top. These "drop-off" voters show up during general-election years but tend to skip nonpresidential contests.

About three-quarters of the Democratic drop-off voters are African Americans, and many live in Shelby County, where Memphis is located and where Ford and his relatives have a history of running well. Corker, in fact, has criticized the Ford family "machine" and its long hold over Memphis politics.

Randy Button, who runs the statewide coordinated campaign for Democratic candidates, said the goal is to reach presidential-level turnout numbers in black communities in Shelby County and throughout the state. "We've got an African American at the top of the ticket," he said. "We should be able to pull it off."

The Heart of the Matter

Alongside the now-standard flurry of negative campaign ads, the airwaves are carrying in the final weeks some spots that unabashedly aim for an emotional response.

Surely the most familiar is the series of ads that began last week, featuring actor Michael J. Fox advocating federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Fox has Parkinson's disease, which causes him to shake almost violently as he makes his case into the camera.

Progress for America, an independent conservative group, is airing an ad featuring David Beamer. His son, Todd Beamer, was a passenger aboard hijacked United Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, and helped force the plane to crash. Beamer defends the Iraq war as an extension of the war on terrorism that started with the Sept. 11 attacks. "We continue this fight in Iraq today," Beamer asserts.

An ad for Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) documents the jaw-dropping experience of constituent Heather Grossman. "My ex-husband hired someone to murder me," Grossman tells the camera. "I was shot. I died at the scene of the crime." Her extensive wounds left her a quadriplegic, "frantic that I would be placed in a nursing home and away from my children." Kyl helped her to secure the needed medical care, she explains.

In an ad by Votevets.org, an independent Democratic group, a soldier shoots an AK-47 rifle at two dummies. One is clad in a standard flak jacket, the other in the modern body armor that the ad accuses the GOP Congress of not funding. The dummy in the flak jacket is riddled with bullets; the other is clean.

Another ad by the group, now running in four congressional districts, shows Iraq veteran Tomas Young in a wheelchair at his kitchen table. Young names the Republican incumbent and points out that the lawmaker voted to raise his own pay, but also to cut military health benefits. "That may make sense from where he sits in Congress, but not from where I'm sitting," Young says.

The goal in such ads "is to go for the heart first, the head second," said Evan Tracey, head of Campaign Media Analysis Group, which monitors political advertising.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company