HAROLD FORD EXITS THE STAGE…. It was never especially clear exactly why former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) thought he should be a senator from New York, but he certainly seemed to be taking the idea seriously.

Ford has announced, however, that he’s stepping aside. In his version of the story, Ford is a hero of the Democratic Party, and his departure from the Senate primary is driven by his motivation to put the party’s interests above his own.

Harold E. Ford Jr., the former Tennessee congressman who has sought to parlay his star power and Wall Street connections into a political career in New York, has decided not to challenge Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand in the Democratic primary this September, according to friends and advisers.

After traveling the state on a closely watched tour, he told friends that he could prevail but feared that an ugly campaign would leave the winner drained of cash and vulnerable to a Republican challenger at a time when the Democratic Party’s filibuster-proof majority in the United States Senate has evaporated.

“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,” Mr. Ford wrote in an opinion article on The New York Times Web Site on Monday night and in Tuesday’s issue.

In his op-ed, Ford explained, “I refuse to do anything that would help Republicans win a Senate seat in New York, and give the Senate majority to the Republicans.”

Given that Ford has frequently strayed from the party line, this strikes some as implausible, but a welcome development nevertheless.

We’ll likely never know for sure exactly what factored into Ford’s decision, but it’s worth remembering that his informal entry into the process was anything but smooth. In mid-January, he sat down for a confusing and controversial interview with the NYT, which made Ford the subject of ridicule. Soon after, he gave advice to the Democratic Party for how best to proceed in 2010 — and his suggestions included killing health care reform and cutting corporate taxes. Perhaps most importantly, Democratic voters in New York seemed well aware of the Tennessean’s conservative record on everything from gay rights to reproductive rights to immigration, and they didn’t care for it.

But whatever the motivation, Ford has made things considerably easier for Gillibrand and the party.

On a related note, I am curious about something. If Ford is skipping the race because he’s concerned about inadvertently helping Republicans, is it safe to assume he’ll invest his time and energies this year to helping Gillibrand and other Democratic candidates?

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.