Friday, August 11, 2006

Florida U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

August 11, 2006
88 Days Until Election Day

Florida U.S. Senate

Status: Democrat Incumbent
2004 Presidential Result: Red State (South)

Outlook: Likely Democrat

It is hard to think of a current political race more frustrating to Republicans than the U.S. Senate contest in Florida. The Sunshine State has been trending Republican at every level and incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson is not regarded as a political heavyweight. He would be considered very vulnerable against many Republicans in the state but since his likely opponent, Congresswoman Katherine Harris has gotten into the race, Nelson's standing has increased to a very large degree. The Senate campaign of Harris has simply been a disaster of Titanic proportions.

Harris became a household world in political circles based on her role as Florida's elected Secretary of State during the 2000 Presidential election controversy and her role in certifying the state's results for George W. Bush. Since 2000, the most partisan ofDemocrats have continued to cry that something suspicious was involved in her role and have vowed to take revenge against Republicans at the ballot box, only to fall significantly short in both 2002 and 2004.

For her part, Harris went on to be elected to Congress after becoming such a lighting rod but had also underperformed as compared to the typical Republican strength in her Congressional district in those House races. While the fashion conscious Harris had remained very popular and admired among the GOP rank and file, and is considered an intelligent and hard working public servant, she is believed to be a catalyst to drive out opposition against her among some on a level that can only be described as hateful in which her critics typically attack her for how they view her personal appearance, in particular her style in makeup.

Katherine Harris wanted to run for the U.S. Senate in 2004 but bowed out at the last minute under pressure from state and national GOP figures who feared that she would generate a higher than otherwise would be the case Democrat turnout which would jeopardize the GOP's ultimately successful attempt of picking up the Senate seat as well as harm the Bush/Cheney ticket in the key battleground state. She made it very clear at the time that she would run for the U.S. Senate again though and would not be deterred at that time.

When Harris first announced her candidacy, many considered her to be an extremely strong candidate against Nelson in Florida based on her high name recognition, previous statewide political success, devoted base of supporters, and ability to raise money from national sources. After the initial announcement though, her bid became hampered by lukewarm support from the same state and national GOP leaders who talked her out of the 2004 race for some of the same reasons. These Republicans, including Governor Jeb Bush, and NRSC Chair Elizabeth Dole, openly tried to get other Republicans to enter the field against Harris but polling data indicated that she would remain a heavy favorite in any Republican primary against anybody other than the outgoing Governor (who also happened to hold a large lead in hypothetical polls against Nelson The same polls though also showed a gradual loss of support for Harris in general election match ups against Nelson. All of that had the effect of somewhat drying up her ability to fundraise and generate momentum.

On television appearances and on the campaign trail, Harris has been criticized for being awkward and unsteady. The past several months has seen her campaign funding be linked to a defense contractor who was associated in a bribery scandal. While there is no evidence that Harris knowingly took illegal money, it just was another politically harmful story that led to serious calls for her to drop out of the race and let another Republican have a shot at Nelson.

For a period of a couple weeks, Harris pretty much left the trail to reflect on whether or not her campaign should continue. Eventually, she decided to stubbornly stay in the race and pledged to contribute $10 million of her personal fortune, inherited after her father's death earlier in the year, as an investment in the race and as a signal that she intends to win.

Instead of being a turning point in her campaign, things simple have gone from bad to worse. She has lost most of her campaign staff more than once in what appears to be unprecedented turnover, apparently because she is extremely difficult to work with or give advice to. There was recently a report of a subpoena she received in relation to her campaign finances that she kept hidden from those around her. Simply put, the Harris campaign has become somewhat of a national laughingstock. There have been some whispers that much of her behavior and recent problems may stem from her continuing grief over the unexpected loss of her father.

When she made it clear that she intended to stay in the race, some Republicans begrudgingly began to except the fact that they would need to rally behind her, but three little known Republicans entered the race before the filing deadline. They are retired Navy Admiral LeRoy Collins Jr, the son of a former Florida Governor along with attorney Will McBride, and developer Peter Monroe, who both have some ties to prominent national Republican powers that be. Harris continues to hold a wide lead in GOP primary polls, and is helped by the fact that her opposition is split three ways, but this trio of other Republicans has begun to make up a little bit of ground in those polls, and perhaps more significantly, the number of Florida Republican voters who say they are undecided has become much higher.

None of the other Republican candidates fare better in polling match ups against the Democrat incumbent Nelson than Harris does. It could be argued thought that if one of them wins the nomination, the increased recognition would put them much more in the game than they are now, and they would be stronger against Nelson since they would not have Harris’s baggage, or at the least, would not generate a larger turnout of Democrats who would be more highly motivated to vote against Harris. Still though, it is hard to see how one of those three Republicans can break through the pack to actually defeat Harris in a primary. Although, the way her campaign has progressed, not much would be surprising.

Despite lackluster fundraising, and continued calls for her to withdraw from the race, she still is poised to spend millions of dollars and obviously has the name recognition and backing of die-hard loyalists that will make it difficult to defeat her in a Republican primary. In an odd political twist, many Florida Republicans want her to drop out of the race, but yet might be unwilling to actually vote against her in a primary.

Some Republicans will continue to hold out hope that the image crafted by late night television comics and others of Katherine Harris as a flighty socialite will not stand up once voters get to see the real person behind the unfair caricature and that her dogged persistence will eventually surpass the low expectations set for her. However, the bad news has gone on so long and has been so severe, that is almost impossible to see how she can overcome it, at least this year. While she would have been very likely to be able to stay in Congress for many more years, her ambitions to be a United States Senator appear to now be for naught.

Many in the party are now holding out hope that somehow if Harris wins the primary, she will take that as vindication enough and would at that point, see the writing on the wall, and leave the race, in order to be replaced by another Republican for the final few weeks of the campaign. The names being bandied about for that hypothetical situation are the outgoing Lt. Governor Toni Jennings, and State CFO Tom Gallagher, who himself has fallen fast in his primary campaign for Governor, but would still be a more viable option to many than Harris. However, as insistent in the face of adversity as Harris has been, it seems like she is planning to go down with the ship.

A post-primary Harris withdrawal would be the last thing that Nelson would like to see, as he has to be considered one of the luckiest politicians in America because of situations beyond his control. The entire campaign has been and appears headed to be a contest that is all about his opponent’s personality and not about the Democrat's record, or positions on the issues.

It is worth mentioning that the school of though that has Harris’s unpopularity being a drag on the entire Republican ticket, while certainly being something that will keep other Republicans nervous, does not appear to be adversely affecting the party in the polls when it comes to the race for Governor. Other Republican candidates for office would be very suspect about being associated too closely with Harris in order to avoid being linked together, but if her campaign is seen as such a foregone conclusion of failure this far away from the election, it is hard to see how Democrats remain motivated to go the extra mile to defeat her when that outcome is already so obvious.

If it is Harris vs. Nelson until November, Nelson cruises to victory. If one of the three other Republicans somehow manages to win the nomination, Nelson remains an extremely heavy favorite, but with a lot more uncertainty to the race.

The biggest wildcard to the race though would be if somehow the Republicans could slate a nominee with a lot more name recognition and experience such as Jennings or Gallagher, or maybe somebody else out there, who might not be able to win, but who could actually use the opportunity to take advantage of what most people agree are political weaknesses and limitations of Nelson and at least make it a race that Florida Democrats and the national party will not be able to take for granted.

Florida GOP link:

Extremely hot link to a photo of Katherine Harris atop a horse:

(If she campaigns throughout the state in this manner, she might have a fighting chance!)

2006 Senate Races predicted thus far: 4 D, 1 R
Predicted post-election Balance of Power thus far: 31 D, 41 R