This story is the latest installment in our “Contenders” series, where we outline the strengths and weaknesses of the people most likely to run for higher office in the coming years. Want to keep up? Sign up for the weekly Longleaf Politics newsletter.

Why Joel Ford is a contender

Sen. Joel Ford may be a lame duck at the moment, but the Charlotte Democrat has a unique opportunity in North Carolina politics.

This past May, Ford lost to a challenge from the left in the primary in his run for a fourth term representing the 38th District. Ford has always been something of a maverick, but that defeat only freed him to be more outspoken and counterintuitive — and that’s thrust him on the statewide stage.

Ford lost in the primary in part for crossing the aisle to vote for certain Republican initiatives. Post-primary, he took that a step further, appearing in a campaign ad for Republican state Sen. Jeff Tarte.

Then he delivered an amendment to the state’s voter ID implementation bill that makes it easier for people without identification to get it. In doing so, Ford powerfully tied his politics to his personal history.

Beyond 2018, Ford is clearly too far right for an urban Charlotte district. But as a Democrat, he might have a better chance in a statewide race.

And if he were to switch parties — something that’s not unheard of in North Carolina politics — Ford would have an incredible opportunity to be a bipartisan leader.

Sen. Joel Ford

Joel Ford’s advantages

History of bipartisanship. North Carolina voters appear hungry for people who vote with their conscience, not just their party affiliation. Ford has a long track record of bucking his party. While this might hurt him in a primary, it would be an asset in a general election.

Plain speaker. Ford has historically interacted with people in an unguarded manner on social media and isn’t afraid to say what he thinks. This fits the zeitgeist and could be refreshing.

Good on the issues. Ford’s positions thread the needle pretty well between Democrats and Republicans. He’s indicated support for school choice while increasing funding for traditional public schools. He’s also pushed criminal justice system reform and tried to refocus the city of Charlotte on job creation.

Joel Ford’s disadvantages

Distraction. We listed his outspokenness as an advantage, but it can also get him into trouble. Ford could be prone to gaffes that could distract from his message. One prominent example is a weird interaction with LGBT activists on Twitter.

Trust. Ford appears to have lost the trust of the Democratic Party establishment, which would hurt him in a Democratic primary. Then, if he were to switch to the GOP, would Republican voters trust him?

Statewide infrastructure. Ford has only run in an extremely compact urban district. Would Ford be able to build the statewide campaign he’d need to win?

Cover photo by Joel Ford via Facebook.

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