With Harold Ford Jr.'s decision to bow out of a possible U.S. Senate primary bid, top New York Democrats believe the way may be clear for incumbent Kirsten Gillibrand to gain the party's nomination without a serious challenge, though many still wonder what may be in New York Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman's mind.
Ending three months of speculation, the 39-year-old Ford, a former congressman from Tennessee who lost a rancorous 2006 battle for the U.S. Senate in that state, said his departure would avoid "a brutal and highly negative Democratic primary" against Gillibrand.
In an Op-Ed piece in Tuesday's New York Times, Ford suggested "Democratic Party insiders" initially tried to "bully me out of a race" against Gillibrand as he claimed they did with other possible challengers, including Huntington Congressman Steve Israel.
But New York State Democratic Party chairman Jay Jacobs - while praising Ford's decision to "sacrifice" his candidacy to avoid a party squabble - said raising enough money against Gillibrand was a daunting task.
Jacobs said Ford would have had to raise between $10 million and $12 million to run a competitive primary race against Gillibrand, who has the support of fellow Democrat Sen. Charles Schumer. For Ford, that would have meant raising $2.5 million a month from at least 1,000 donors giving the maximum contribution, Jacobs added.
"New York is a tough state and it's always an uphill battle running against an incumbent, no matter who it is," Jacobs said.
Other Senate hopefuls include Jonathan Tasini, a Democratic labor activist running against Gillibrand, and former Nassau County legislature official Bruce Blakeman, who right now is the only declared candidate on the GOP line.
Though Ford was unavailable for comment Tuesday, his spokesman said "the issue of raising money was not a factor in his [Ford's] decision." The spokesman said Ford raised more than $3 million from New Yorkers in his 2006 Tennessee race.
When asked about what Democrats had attempted to bully challengers to Gillibrand, Ford's camp pointed to Schumer.
A Schumer spokesman said the senator spoke to Ford about not running but didn't try to influence others. And Israel objected to Ford's claim that he'd been bullied out of the race.
"Harold Ford should speak for himself," Israel said. "I made a decision based on what was best for my constituents."
Gillibrand could not be reached for comment but in a television interview said "at the end the day, he [Ford] may well have underestimated me."
Left standing in the rumor mill is Zuckerman and his possible bid for the Senate. Like Ford, Zuckerman is a darling of the news talk show circuit and his centrist views would likely appeal to many Wall Street and other influential contributors, experts say.
Jacobs said he doubted Zuckerman would challenge Gillibrand for the Democratic nod and, if he decided to run, would probably do so with Republican and Independent Party support. A spokesman for Zuckerman declined to comment.