Campaign Crawlers

Red Faces in a Red State

And lots of red lipstick: Katherine Harris refinances her Senate campaign.

By 3.19.06

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TAMPA -- Like that world-famous gambler, Lady Godiva, who put everything she had on a horse, Republican Florida Congresswoman Katherine Harris is betting she can use her personal fortune to buy a seat in the United States Senate.

Maybe she can pull this off.

And maybe a kangaroo will win the Kentucky Derby this year.

In an act of political desperation and financial insanity, Harris announced Wednesday on the Hannity & Colmes TV talk show that she's putting $10 million of her personal fortune into her controversy-plagued, and currently-going-nowhere campaign for the Senate.

There's plenty more where that $10 million came from. Both Harris and her husband are wealthy almost beyond counting. But at this point Harris's "investment" looks like a lot of good money after bad, and one of the worst bets in town.

Harris is an intelligent, attractive, and well-educated woman with a solid conservative voting record in her three-plus years in the U.S. House. She's almost certain to be the Republican Senate nominee. More certain now with all this money to spend. But she trails incumbent Democrat Senator Bill Nelson, a reliable liberal vote in the Senate, by more than 20 points in most polls. She has Hillary-class negatives. Even lots of Republicans don't like her. She has a reputation among those who know her as a bit of a diva, and she's so hard to work for that both her congressional and campaign offices have installed revolving doors to accommodate workers leaving her employ.

So how does an experienced politician from one of Florida's premier political and business families -- Harris's grandfather was former state senator and citrus pioneer Ben Hill Griffin, Jr. (after whom the football stadium at the University of Florida is named) -- get so far behind a charisma-challenged, first-term nonentity like Bill Nelson? (Nelson is so bland and his record in the Senate of so little account, there are members of Nelson's own family who don't know he's in the U.S. Senate.)

Some of Harris's problems are simple spite on the part of Florida Democrats and a liberal Florida media who dislike her for her role in the 2000 presidential election. As Florida Secretary of State in 2000 -- the state's top election official -- Harris insisted that Florida law be followed and the election be certified on the schedule set out clearly in Florida statutes. The Democrats, on the other hand, wanted to keep counting and re-counting until Al Gore won. Harris wouldn't let the Dems run their little scam, and they're still really sore about it. For upholding the law, the Democrats labeled Harris "controversial" and "divisive." Most of the Florida media have been happy enough to go along with this gag. Republicans have done little or nothing to defend her on these absurd charges.

MORE RECENT PROBLEMS, THOUGH, ARE of Harris's own making. They are more serious; perhaps insurmountable. In an act of staggering political tone-deafness, or perhaps just Olympian disregard for the rules that apply to the little people, Harris took $32,000 in illegal campaign contributions in 2004 from defense contractor Mitchell J. Wade -- the same contractor who has pleaded guilty to bribing California Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (who is himself presently being measured for the federal prison orange jump suit) -- and then tried to earmark federal funds for a project for said contractor in her district.

Harris says she didn't ask for the earmark in return for the contributions. She just wanted the high-skill, high-paying jobs the project would bring for her district. Maybe so. She's asked for funding for a lot of projects since she's been in the House. Even the federal prosecutor who uncovered the illegal contribution to Harris and Republican Virginia Congressman Virgil H. Goode said that Harris and Goode may well have not known the contributions were illegal (a fact that most long stories in Florida newspapers omitted). The contributions were made by Wade's employees, and then Wade reimbursed the employees, which makes the contributions illegal.

But it doesn't take a political genius to see how this sequence of donations and request could look to voters, and to editorial writers. (The St. Petersburg Times has already written a scold under the headline "Dirty Harris.") This is especially stunning in Harris's case because this is almost deja vu all over again for her. She was involved in a similar dustup involving her 1994 campaign for a Florida State Senate seat. A Florida insurance company tried to avoid the contribution limits by having employees give contributions that were then refunded to the employees in "bonuses." Five company executives wound up being sentenced for illegal campaign contributions, but Harris wasn't charged with anything. Her defense then, and now, being -- "Who knew?"

The 2004 contributions and the attempted earmark -- it was turned down in the House -- only recently came to light, and Floridians have been treated to a couple of weeks' worth of almost daily newspaper and television stories on the matter. Until Wednesday, the speculation among political insiders from both parties was that Harris's prospects, already pretty dim, were so damaged by the revelations that she would have to pull out of the race. Wednesday's announcement left this crowd slack-jawed with amazement.

OK, THERE'S SEVEN-AND-A-HALF MONTHS left until election day. So maybe Harris can come up with a benign explanation for the campaign donations and her actions that followed them. Stranger things have happened -- though not often. Then all she'd have to do would be deal with the already existing political and personal raps on her, along with the new charge of "little-rich-girl-trying-to-buy-an-office" that will certainly be leveled at her, early and often, because of her $10 million donation to herself.

The media, contemptuous of Harris before the contractor/earmark stories, will now proceed to beat the living crap out of her. The obvious questions are: If your candidacy is so hot, how come you have to finance it yourself? (Before her auto-largess, Harris had raised about $1 million and Nelson was sitting on $8 million.) And, of course: Why on earth would you want to pay $10 million out of your own pocket to be a U.S. Senator? So long as these legitimate questions are floating around, the race will continue to be about Harris, not Nelson. And that's a loser for Harris.

Florida is the second largest red state, with overwhelming Republican majorities in the state house and in the U.S. House delegation. The governor and all members of the cabinet are Republican. So it's a major puzzle why Florida Republicans can't come up with a strong candidate to deal with the likes of Bill Nelson. (It wasn't for lack of the White House and Florida Republicans trying.)

In baseball terms, Nelson is a belt-high fastball that's catching a lot of the plate. Florida Republicans ought to be able to drive a pitch like this. If they can't, they really need to work on their bench. That is if they want to play in the big leagues.

Florida Republicans have one potential candidate who likely could rout Nelson. That would be Florida's successful and popular governor Jeb Bush (yes, there does seem to be a Bush behind every bush these days), whose second and final term of office ends this year. But Jeb is disinclined to get into the race. Jeb probably does have a future in politics, but people close to the family say Jeb would like to make a little money for a bit before pursuing public office again. So for those keeping score, it doesn't appear now that red-state Florida will get any redder in November. Except maybe for the faces of Republicans when the Harris-Nelson returns come in. Or except maybe if W can convince his little brother to come to Washington to help him out.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.