Barack Obama was forced to involve himself in a racially divisive congressional primary in Memphis Thursday that pits a white liberal incumbent against an African-American challenger who has connected the congressman to the Ku Klux Klan.
The primary features Rep. Steve Cohen (D), who is the only white congressman representing a majority black congressional district. Cohen’s primary opponent, attorney Nikki Tinker, has been increasingly raising the issues of race and religion in the final week of the contest.
This week, Tinker aired a television ad featuring Cohen alongside a hooded Klansman. The ad criticizes Cohen for voting against removing a statue of Klan founder Nathaniel Bedford Forrest from a local park when he was in the state Senate.
A second ad rebuked the Jewish congressman for "praying in our churches" while casting a vote that opposed prayer in schools.
“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. “It’s time to turn the page on a politics driven by negativity and division so that we can come together to lift up our communities and our country.”
In his response, however, Obama notably didn’t mention the racial or religious nature of the Tinker attack ads — the crux of why the ads have been so controversial. And his broad statement avoided mentioning Cohen or Tinker by name, much less offering Cohen a full endorsement.
Obama had initially declined to comment on the ads. Asked why the campaign changed their mind, Obama spokesman Bill Burton would only say, "Senator Obama thought it was appropriate to comment, so he did."
His decision to involve himself also came amid a slew of media attention on the Memphis race. MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann named Tinker as his “worst person in the world” on Wednesday night’s show. And FOX News host Sean Hannity challenged Obama to condemn the advertisements.
“Barack Obama is a post-racial candidate. Remember he said that?” Hannity said Wednesday night. “So why shouldn't the post-racial candidate — and that's Barack Obama — condemn the use of the race card?”
Obama’s arms-length involvement in the race is in sharp contrast to his advocacy for Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.), who was facing an African-American primary opponent last month. Obama endorsed him, and cut a radio advertisement on his behalf.
Cohen campaign manager Jerry Austin said that Obama endorsed Barrow as a reward for the congressman’s endorsement of him before the Georgia presidential primary.
“Steve Cohen endorsed Obama before the Tennessee primary, there were no deals,” said Austin. “But we’re going to win this on our own. We didn’t expect to have his support. Usually [presidential candidates] don’t get involved in primaries. It’s not a big deal.”
But Cohen, who endorsed Obama’s candidacy in February, has not been shy about invoking Obama’s name on the campaign trail – even mentioning him in a radio ad featuring Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.).
“Jesse and I approve this message because we’ll work with Barack Obama for the change we need and the America we deserve,” Cohen says at the end of the ad.