Movement in Dem primaries: Harold Ford out, Bill Halter in

While it was initially difficult to take the possibility Harold Ford Jr. might run for Senate in New York seriously, the former Tennessee congressman had come to look determined to pursue the race. That makes his announcement tonight that he will not challenge Senator Kirsten Gillibrand somewhat of a surprise.

For a politician to make an unabashed defense of Wall Street his most recognizable campaign issue does not appear to be the best idea after all - if you even believe Ford was serious about running, which I remain doubtful about. Given that he has gotten The New York Times to cover his exit as a sacrifice for the good of the party, it would not surprise me if there is more at play here.

This is the third time over the past twelve months that a Democrat seemingly on the brink of running in New York’s Senate primary pulled back at the last minute. First was Rep. Steve Israel; next was Rep. Carolyn Maloney; and now Ford, who has chosen to make his decision known to the breathless world in an op-ed to be published in The New York Times. Of course, the stakes changed quite a bit: While the left was encouraging Maloney and Israel to get in, Gillibrand became progressives’ champion when she was compared to the conservative Ford.

It now seems safe to say that the senator’s only primary opponent will be labor activist Jonathan Tasini, who drew 17% in his challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2006. While Tasini might very well receive more in September, Gillibrand is overwhelmingly favored to prevail. Now, she would also have been the front-runner had Ford jumped in, but that match-up would have set off a media frenzy that would have kept Democrats busy right up to the September primary, potentially opening the door for Republicans to contest the seat. Indeed, Marc Ambinder reported last month that former Governor George Pataki was signaling potential interest in the race, but only if he saw Ford was in a position to substantially harm the incumbent before the general election.

Let us not forget that Ford had refused to rule out an independent bid, a possibility that is now apparently also out the door. That is one less nightmarish scenario for the DSCC to worry about.

As such, Ford’s exit is a rare blow to Republican efforts to expand the Senate map, as it makes it all the harder to see what could go wrong with Gillibrand’s image for her to lose to the GOP’s sole candidate Bruce Blakeman or for the NRSC to convince Pataki to run. This leaves Wisconsin and Washington as the two Dem-held Senate seats that are currently not competitive but might be depending on recruitment.

If Gillibrand dodged yet another primary bullet today, Blanche Lincoln landed an opponent: Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, whom I first wrote about eleven months ago, announced today he will challenge her in May’s Democratic primary.

My one-sentence take on this development: Given how low Lincoln’s re-election prospects have sank, Democrats have nothing to lose but trying out their luck with another candidate.

When a very well-known incumbent trails even low-profile challengers by double-digits, an open seat might very well be all that is left for a party to save itself - a consideration that’s all the more true given the electorate hostility towards incumbents and towards the federal government. At the very least, for Halter to win the nomination could free the DSCC from its commitment to spending millions in Arkansas: Even if Labor Day polls were to show Boozman with an overwhelming lead, national Democrats might still not be able to deny Lincoln money that could go to other states, whereas they presumably would be less

Naturally, the obstacles to Halter’s bid are stark. If he were to win the general election, he would start as the clear underdog given Boozman’s strength, Arkansas’s red hue and the cycle’s anti-Democratic winds; all these reasons are also dooming Lincoln, but at least she has money to try to surmount them, the name recognition to get voters to pay attention to her and more electoral experience.

Before he can even think of the general election, Halter has to get out of the primary - and here again he faces a very steep climb. Lincoln might have grown into Democrats’ main nemesis for much of 2009 - she not only was one of the public option’s biggest opponents but was also the first (and I believe to this day only) Democrat to announce opposition to EFCA and pushed a huge tax break on the estate tax - but state Democrats are to the right of the national party’s and Arkansas’s incumbent Senators fairly rarely lose primary fights, especially when they have already won before rather than been elected. A key to the Halter-Lincoln match-up will be African-Americans: To have a chance at defeating the incumbent, Halter will need to capitalize on black voters’ potential frustrations with Lincoln and he will need enough organizational muscle to get supporters out of the polls.

One question I have: Given that he was publicly mulling a challenge to Lincoln as early as last spring, why did he wait until 10 weeks before Election Day to make his launch his campaign? He might already be a statewide official, but he is not high-profile enough to have the luxury to wait like Andrew Cuomo, especially considering Lincoln is a very well-funded incumbent who has millions at her disposal to pour in attacks against Halter. The Lieutenant Governor might get a lot of help from the netroots - he had raised $500,000 within hours of his candidacy - but will that compensate Lincoln’s cash-on-hand and her deep ties to the Democratic establishment? (The White House wasted no time before confirming it would support Lincoln.)

[Update: Well, here's one answer as to how Halter can put together a full campaign in such a short period of time: Turns out killing EFCA doesn't endear one to labor groups. The AFL-CIO is already endorsing Halter and a coalition of unions has already committed to spending $3 million to ousting Lincoln.]

There has been a lot of talk today about the effects Halter’s bid might have on Lincoln’s positioning in the Senate, but I doubt this is a meaningful story at this point. Had he announce a year ago, Lincoln might have acted differently at various points of 2009, but the next ten weeks should hardly be the occasion for Halter to pressure the incumbent to move leftward. Yes, the Senate might be called to vote on the health-care vote, but Harry Reid is unlikely to need Lincoln’s vote to pass a reconciliation sidecar: In the quest for 50 votes rather than 60, the names of the senators under the spotlight are Russ Feingold, Kent Conrad and Jim Webb rather than Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman and Blanche Lincoln.

1 Response to “Movement in Dem primaries: Harold Ford out, Bill Halter in”

  1. 1 Steven J. Berke

    According to the Politico, Ford’s departure is linked to the possibility that Mort Zuckerman will run (as a Republican, not in the Democratic primary). Apparently the big-bucks donors who Ford was soliciting were waiting on Mort to decide. The Politico seems to think he’s likely to go, and from the tone of the article, think he is all but the favorite against Gillibrand (I have serious doubts about that).

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