Ford's Bluff Is Called; He Won't Challenge Gillibrand In N.Y. : It's All Politics Former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford Jr. ends his flirtation with a New York Senate bid.
NPR logo Ford's Bluff Is Called; He Won't Challenge Gillibrand In N.Y.

Ford's Bluff Is Called; He Won't Challenge Gillibrand In N.Y.

A Senate run in New York was not in the cards for Ford. hide caption

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Ultimately, reality won out.

From the outset, the odds of a successful 2010 Senate bid by Harold Ford Jr. were slim. One, he was going to run in New York, where he had resided for only a couple of years after a lifetime in Tennessee politics. Two, he was going to challenge a fellow Democrat, incumbent (albeit via appointment) Kirsten Gillibrand. Three, the Democrat he was hoping to challenge was strongly backed by the Obama White House and the party establishment in New York, led by Sen. Charles Schumer. Four, every other Democrat who considered taking on Gillibrand in the primary was told point blank to fuggedaboudit. And five, his positions when he was running for office in Tennessee -- he called himself "pro-life" on abortion, and he opposed same-sex marriage -- were pretty much anathema in more liberal New York.

But the charismatic Ford became a story, if for no other reason than for his ability to raise huge sums of money at a moment's notice. When he ran for the Senate from Tennessee in 2006, he raised $15 million, a sizable chunk of it from places like, well, New York. I suspect there were more than a few wealthy New Yorkers who promised to open up their checkbooks for him. Plus, there were still some resistance to the thought of Gillibrand as senator from some on the left. She took some pretty conservative positions as a two-term House member from a rural, Republican-leaning upstate district -- on guns and immigration -- and there was a mini-revolt among some liberals when Gov. David Paterson named her to fill Hillary Clinton's Senate seat some 13 months ago. (See my "Psst, Harold ... They Don't Like Carpetbaggers In New York" Junkie post from Jan. 12.)

For all of Ford's talk that he would not be "bullied or intimidated" by Schumer or Harry Reid or higher-ups at the White House, he had trouble articulating why he would be more effective than Gillibrand. He showed a lack of familiarity with New York, other than Manhattan. When asked if he had been to Staten Island, he said, "I landed there in a helicopter, so I can say yes" -- an answer that was widely ridiculed. The revelation of his $2 million annual compensation with Merrill Lynch didn't go over well either.

In announcing his decision today in a New York Times op-ed, Ford talked about how "Democratic Party insiders started their own campaign to bully me out of the race." And yet:

There are compelling reasons for me to run. I believe New Yorkers are hungry for a new direction in government. Our elected officials have spent too much time this past year supporting a national partisan political agenda -- and not enough time looking out for their own constituents.

But ...

I've examined this race in every possible way, and I keep returning to the same fundamental conclusion: If I run, the likely result would be a brutal and highly negative Democratic primary -- a primary where the winner emerges weakened and the Republican strengthened.

I refuse to do anything that would help Republicans win a Senate seat in New York, and give the Senate majority to the Republicans. ...

I am a Democrat. But I am an independent Democrat. I am not going to stop speaking out on behalf of policies that I think are right -- regardless of ideology, party or political expediency. I plan to continue taking this message across our state and across our nation.

Horn Tooting 101: Going back to my Jan. 12 post about a Ford candidacy, I ended it with this:

And for what it's worth, the guess here is that, ultimately, he doesn't run.

MZ Hammer?: Politico's Ben Smith writes that one of the reasons behind Ford's decision was the possibility (likelihood?) that Mort Zuckerman, a Democrat and the owner of the New York Daily News, would get in the race as a "center-right" Republican-Independent. Zuckerman, who endorsed Barack Obama in 2008, "has emerged as a bitter White House critic, and his entry into the race would put Republicans clearly within striking distance of retaking the Senate":

At this point, the only real obstacle to Zuckerman's entering the race is Zuckerman himself. Friends said they're not sure whether he's willing to give up the unusual status he's bought as a figure who is public when he chooses to weigh in on public policy issues and utterly private in his unconventional personal life. And friends like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg have told him that, at 72, after a lifetime of running his own businesses and making millions, the last thing that would make him happy would be becoming a freshman senator.

But Zuckerman ... has been a practicing pundit for years and "has always wanted to be in the political mix," said Howard Rubenstein, the New York PR man and a Zuckerman friend. More important, the weaknesses of his likely opponent, Gillibrand, are clear to everyone, and a statewide office has rarely seemed so ripe for the plucking. ...

If Zuckerman were to mount a serious challenge to Gillibrand as a Republican, it would extend the list of strong GOP candidates to well within striking distance of the Democrats' 18-seat majority, though Zuckerman would most likely define himself as an independent. ...

Zuckerman, who, according to his allies, has spoken with Bloomberg and his circle about a potential bid, would be a candidate in the Bloomberg model: a mogul whose wealth gets him a party line or two and who taps into voters' desire for independence from a hated political system. ...

None of the Republicans who had been considering the race are household names: Attorney Bruce Blakeman, a former Nassau County official who got clobbered in his bid for state comptroller in 1998; Michael Balboni, a former state senator from Long Island; and Elizabeth Feld, the mayor of Larchmont (pop. 6,567), who was badly beaten in a bid for State Senate in 2008.