By Frank James
New York State may later this year provide the nation with a fascinating internecine battle over its U.S. Senate seat with a possible challenge to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand from former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr.
Yes, it does seem somewhat unusual that a former Tennessee congressman, who failed to win a Senate seat in the Volunteer State, would be mulling a run for a Senate seat to represent New York.
But as a New York Times piece notes, New York loves its carpetbaggers. Sen. Hillary Clinton and Robert F. Kennedy are the two cited in the piece.
Ford evidently moved to New York several years ago and is a vice chair at Merrill Lynch. The NYT reports that he is being courted to run against Gillibrand because the current senator, from upstate New York, has failed to win over "key constituencies" in New York City. That apparently includes big Democratic fundraisers in New York City.
About a dozen high-profile Democrats have expressed interest in backing a candidacy by Mr. Ford, including the financier Steven Rattner, who, along with his wife, Maureen White, has been among the country's most prolific Democratic fund-raisers.
"Maureen and I worked hard for Harold in his last race because we think the world of him," Mr. Rattner said, referring to Mr. Ford's run for the Senate in Tennessee in 2006. "He has extraordinary drive and intelligence and will excel at anything that he chooses to do."
Among those who have encouraged Mr. Ford to consider a run are Merryl H. Tisch, the chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, whose husband, James, is the chief executive of the Loews Corporation, and Richard Plepler, the co-president of HBO, according to people who have spoken with them.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who has publicly tangled with Ms. Gillibrand, is open to the possibility of supporting a challenger of Mr. Ford's stature, according to those familiar with his thinking.
Those who have expressed interest in a Ford campaign remain skittish about discussing it publicly, citing Ms. Gillibrand's power over billions of dollars in financing around the state. The state's senior senator, Charles E. Schumer, has been aggressively elbowing out potential primary challengers to Ms. Gillibrand.
If you're a Democratic strategist worried about maintaining the 60 seats needed to end filibusters in the Senate, a divisive primary for the Senate seat is the last thing you want right now, especially on the heels of the news that Democratic senators like Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Chris Dodd of Connecticut aren't standing for re-election.
As the NYT reminds us, Ford was the target of one of the most controversial political ads in 2006 during his unsuccessful race against Sen. Bob Corker. In critics' eyes, the Republican National Committee ad played on racial fears in a conservative Southern state by riffing off of reports that Ford, a bachelor and an African American, dated white women.
What will be fascinating to watch if Ford decides to run is how he shifts his political stance. For instance, he's chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
But as an African American running state wide in New York, to seal the deal with black voters in New York City who tend to be liberal and would be expected to be his base, he would have to move to the political left.
As the NYT notes, he has also opposed gay marriage, a position that might also hurt him in NYC which because of its size has a disproportionate influence on state-wide tallies.