April 10, 2006,
Katherine Harris will not be the next senator from Florida. She will almost certainly win the Republican nomination on September 5, but she will not defeat Democratic senator Bill Nelson two months later. For the good of her party, and for the good of her own reputation, she should withdraw from the race as soon as possible and allow another Republican to have a chance at victory.
On paper, there is much to like about a Harris candidacy. She won a statewide election for secretary of state in 1998, and she has prevailed in two races for Congress. In Washington, she has compiled a respectably conservative voting record: The American Conservative Union gives her a lifetime rating of 91 percent.
Harris also benefits from something that most senatorial challengers crave: name recognition. At one point during the 2000 election controversy, there were more Americans who could identify Harris as Floridaís secretary of state than Americans who could identify the official who was responsible for overseeing elections in their own state. In carrying out her legal duties that year, she weathered intense national scrutiny with admirable resolve. Her controversial decision to certify the election of Bush was later vindicated by the U.S. Supreme Court and the ballot recounts. She performed her job, and performed it well under trying circumstances.
Having achieved notoriety, Harris became not only a member of Congress but also a popular fundraiser on the GOP circuit. Perhaps it was only natural that one day she would consider running for Senate. The thought occurred to her as early as 2004, when Florida Democrat Bob Graham retired. Ultimately she declined, largely because Republicans convinced her that the memories of 2000 were too fresh in the minds of many former supporters of Al Gore and that her presence on the ticket might hurt Bush.
But now Harris believes she has a legitimate chance against Nelson. Her belief is almost surely mistaken. Polls routinely show her behind by more than 20 points. It is not unusual for a challenger to trail an incumbent at this point in an election cycle, in large part because challengers need time to introduce themselves to voters. Yet Harris needs no introduction: She is already well known, and many Floridians simply refuse to support her. In February, a GOP poll of likely voters found her to have a favorable rating of just 35 percent and an unfavorable rating of 45 percent. Those numbers are fatal.
Whatís more, Harris has stumbled badly in her campaign. Surprisingly, she has flopped as a fundraiser. In a sign of desperation last month, she pledged $10 million of her own money to the race. To complicate matters, she has become enmeshed in a flap over her acceptance of illegal contributions from a defense contractor who has pleaded guilty to bribing former Rep. Randy ďDukeĒ Cunningham. Harris says she accepted the funds unknowingly. Finally, she has bled senior campaign staff in recent weeks, some of whom had advised her to get out of a race she canít win.
Polls suggest that Nelson is beatable he is a colorless career politician whose voting record will strike many Floridians as too liberal. But he is also experienced, and is unlikely to make any large mistakes between now and November. Harris canít defeat him. In a year when the GOP majority in the Senate is in jeopardy, every seat is crucial, and the party canít afford to forfeit a chance to beat a vulnerable Democratic incumbent.
Although itís late in the day the filing deadline for candidates is May 12 there is still time for another Republican to enter the race. The best option may be Florida house speaker Allan Bense. Or perhaps businessman Tom Rooney, who recently explored a candidacy, can be convinced to reconsider. But neither of these men is likely to launch an underdog effort unless Harris first drops out. It is now imperative for Harris to do so, for the good of the party she has served so loyally.
It can be an act of bravery for a soldier to charge the enemy lines, armed only with his determination. It can be an act of foolhardiness, too. It takes wisdom to tell the difference. For Katherine Harris, there is still time to be wise. But time is ticking out.