By R. Neal
Tennessee's State Senator Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville (home of Ft. Campbell and the 101st Airborne) is an interesting Democrat. She has figured out how to win elections in a predominately Republican district. She started her career in politics as a County Commissioner because her children didn't have a lunchroom in their school. She has since gone on to represent the 22nd District in the Tennessee Legislature as State Senator.
Now she is running for the United States Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Dr. Bill Frist. But first she will have to win the nomination over U.S. Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. of Memphis, who is also running for the Democratic nomination. Then, in the general election she will face a Republican candidate backed by a powerful GOP political machine in the Red State of Tennessee. She has a tough row to hoe.
Sen. Kurita is a fiscal conservative who voted against new sales taxes and a state income tax. She also supports campaign finance and ethics reforms. As a nurse, she is interested in health care issues, and as a representative of soldiers and their families from Ft. Campbell she is involved in veteran's issues. She is also one of the few (if not the only) Tennessee Democrats to gain endorsements from both the NRA and the Tennessee Education Association teacher's union.
Sen. Kurita graciously agreed to answer a few questions about her campaign and how Democrats can win in the South:
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Q: (R. Neal for Facing South): What are the challenges facing Tennessee's Democratic nominee for United States Senate in a state that voted overwhelmingly for Bush in 2004 and hasn't elected a Democrat to the Senate since Al Gore in 1990?Her comments about internet advertising and organizing are interesting. Candidates saw the power of the internet as a grassroots organizing and fundraising vehicle in the last election. Smart politicians have figured out that the internet, and now blogs, are increasingly effective tools.
A: (Sen. Kurita): First, I would point out that I have been repeatedly re-elected in a swing district that voted 61% for Bush. I won 62% and 57% of the vote in my last two elections. There's a new report that labels Clarksville the most conservative city in Tennessee - but they've got a solid Democrat representing them in the state Senate.
My record and reputation appeal to Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. In my last election, I won every precinct but one. The challenge is to work hard and get your message out to voters. I know how to work hard, I know how to fight hard, and I know how to win.
Q: What are the most important issues affecting Tennessee that our next Senator should focus on in Washington?
A: Two issues that impact Tennessee and all of America are health care and energy policy.
As a registered nurse who would be the only nurse in the U.S. Senate if elected, I'm prepared to tackle health care policy. We need a health care delivery system that works. We need to use our technology and our ingenuity to make health care more accessible and more affordable.
Everyone thinks about energy policy when they go to the gas pump and pay nearly three dollars a gallon to fill up. We need an energy policy that conserves our resources and reduces our dependence on oil from the Middle East.
Developing biodiesel, ethanol, wind power, and other energy alternatives means more jobs for American workers, better prices for American consumers, and a cleaner environment for all of us.
Q: How does running a statewide campaign differ from running a local or district-wide campaign?
A: Running a statewide campaign is a huge undertaking. But my approach is the same - work as hard as I can and meet as many people as I can to get my message out.
The biggest difference is the amount of money you have to raise. Our campaign is on track to have the money we need to compete and win.
Q: You have been running campaign advertisements on several major blogs. Have these been effective? Do you see blogs as a major force in future elections? Must a campaign have an "internet strategy" to be successful? Do you believe blogs should be regulated similar to political action groups as has been proposed by the FEC?
A: Our blog ads have been surprisingly effective. We've raised money from 22 states since we started our online advertising effort.
The internet is an integral part of a campaign. A candidate can no longer just have a "brochure" website that simply has nice pictures and a few words. The internet can be used for voter outreach, fundraising, field work, and so much more.
The FEC should NOT be regulating blog content similar to political action groups. Bloggers are like modern-day pamphleteers. They cover the stories the mainstream media sometimes misses. And blog coverage is often more in-depth. It's refreshing to read the news in that format - a format that allows for feedback and for open exchange of ideas. That's what free speech in America is all about.
Q: What is the secret of your success as a popular Democratic State Senator from a primarily Republican district?
A: I'm a straight shooter. When I tell you my position, that's my position. I don't sugar-coat and I don't avoid tough questions.
There isn't any secret to my success. It's all about hard work. I'm a wife, a mother, and a registered nurse. I raised three children while running a small business. I've worked the night shift and I've punched a time clock. I know what it means to work for everything you have. That's the attitude I bring to my work in public office, and that's the attitude I'll bring to the U.S. Senate.
Q: How can progressive candidates appeal to independent and moderate conservative voters? What is your advice to other Democrats in the South seeking statewide or national office?
A: I find voters respond favorably to someone who shoots straight. I've gained a lot of support from people who identify themselves as either to the left or to the right of me. They tell me they support me because they know where I stand and my position doesn't change with the political winds.
Sen. Kurita believes that hard work, getting out your message, and being direct and consistent are important for Democrats seeking office in the South. I'm just guessing, but it's likely that being a fiscal conservative helps, too, and an NRA endorsement probably doesn't hurt.
The Democratic primary will be interesting to watch. Will Tennessee Democrats favor a more "liberal" candidate such as Harold Ford Jr. or a more "moderate" candidate such as Kurita? Although neither of those labels really means much in a state where "liberal" would be considered slightly right of center in a Blue State.
Either way, the general election will be a good test to see if Democrats are able to leverage growing dissatisfaction among moderates and even some conservatives with "business as usual" in Washington to claim a Senate seat for the "D"s.