If Harold Ford Jr. defies the White House and launches a Senate bid in
New York, it wouldn't be the first time that he has taken on powerful
players in the Democratic Party.
Ford's unsuccessful bid to challenge Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for minority leader in 2002 was a setback to his career, but one that he overcame.
A source familiar with the landscape of the Senate race told The Hill there’s an “80-20” chance the former Tennessee congressman will challenge Gillibrand.
The biggest obstacle, the source said, is that Ford would be going up against almost every elected Democrat from New York, most notably Schumer.
The White House, meanwhile, has not been shy in saying Obama backs Gillibrand. The administration, along with Schumer, helped clear the field for the incumbent senator.
But that might not stop Ford.
"If he thinks he can win, he'll do it,” the source said.
The source pointed to a new Marist poll showing Gillibrand beating Ford, 43-24, in a hypothetical match-up. While Ford is down 19 points, a third of those surveyed were undecided, and the ex-House lawmaker would likely cut into that lead if he jumped in the race.
Ford’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Defying the Democratic establishment has been a hallmark of Ford’s career, which could be an asset in a year when public anxiety is focused on incumbents.
“Ford is not a down-the-line party guy,” said John Geer, a professor at Vanderbilt University who knows Ford.
Ford made that clear when he recently told The New York Times: “If I am elected senator from New York, [Senate Majority Leader] Harry ReidHarry ReidIf Gorsuch pick leads to 'crisis,' Dems should look in mirror first Senate confirms Mulvaney to be Trump’s budget chief Democrats declare victory after Puzder bows out MORE [D-Nev.] will not instruct me how to vote.”
And on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Friday, Ford said he would consider running as an Independent, but left his options open.
In his 2002 race against Pelosi, Ford attracted only 29 votes while Pelosi snared 177.
“That was Don Quixote. No one took it seriously,” former Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas) said of Ford’s leadership run. “She already had it locked up, so that was an after thought."
Pelosi had the backing of many of the female members and the liberal wing of the caucus, while Ford had no vocal backers. Pelosi was the clear favorite, but Ford's decision to run against her ruffled many feathers in the House Democratic Caucus.
“I guess he just wanted to make a point,” Frost said.
Geer sees it differently.
That run for the leadership was “laying the ground work” for his Senate race in Tennessee in 2006, Geer said. “Harold is very smart, he’s very focused and he has strong opinions. He wants to frame issues the way he likes to do it, so he’s going to tussle with people. It’s just Harold’s style.”
In this environment, Geer said, “I’m not so sure running against the Democratic Party in New York isn’t a winner.”
“There’s a lot of party insiders who are probably unhappy with Harold, but there’s a lot of party insiders who probably are happy with Harold,” Geer said.
Geer added that Ford's interest in the New York race was piqued by supporters who encouraged him to run.
“Is he ambitious? Of course he is. What politician isn’t?” Geer said. “But this New York race was a product of people coming to him urging him to run. It was an opportunity that suddenly presented itself, and obviously he continues to mull it over.”
Ford would have his own powerful backers if he decides to jump in. He’s known to be close with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who won reelection in 2009 as an Independent.
Former President Bill ClintonBill ClintonChelsea Clinton attends Muslim solidarity rally in NYC Former Defense chief: Trump's handling of national security 'dysfunctional' How dealmaker Trump can resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict MORE helped Ford raise money during his 2006 Senate race in Tennessee. And, that year, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said of Ford, "His potential is limitless.”
Ford lost the 2006 Tennessee Senate race by three percent in a tough, competitive campaign.
Should Ford get into the race in New York, Schumer will likely be active in promoting Gillibrand. But attacking Ford could be tricky for the senior senator from New York, who is expected to cruise in his own reelection race this year.
As chairman of the Democratic Senatorial campaign Committee, Schumer worked closely with Ford in 2006.
That year, Schumer said, "We have a great candidate in Harold Ford. He represents a new generation in leadership."