Dream or Nightmare?

Controversial Harris Weighs 2004 Senate Bid

Posted February 14, 2003 at 5:58pm

Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.), who gained national prominence during Florida’s 2000 presidential recount saga, is weighing a Senate bid if Sen. Bob Graham (D) does not seek re-election next year, knowledgeable sources said last week.

While Graham’s future plans remain unknown as he recovers from recent heart surgery, he is widely expected to announce by the end of the month that he will run for president. Harris, who served as Florida secretary of state during the 2000 recount and was elected to Congress last year, would run only in an open-seat race.

“If Bob Graham runs for president she will take a very close look at it,” said a source familiar with Harris’ thinking and Florida politics.

Harris, who recently wrote a book about her 2000 election experiences, has high statewide name recognition and the type of strong fundraising ability needed for a statewide campaign. She raised $3.3 million for her House race.

“She has what it takes to run statewide,” said one Florida GOP source. “She has the name ID. She has the money. She has the appeal. She has the gravitas.”

However, some people question how serious the freshman is and whether President Bush would welcome a Harris bid.

“Can you imagine in 2004, everywhere the president goes in Florida, Katherine Harris is on the same stage?” said a Florida GOP aide. “It’s a visual that the White House would never, never allow.”

While the thought of a Bush/Cheney/Harris ticket in 2004 is tempting for Florida Democrats, who are confident that their base will turn out strong if Harris is the Senate nominee, they also believe that it is likely too good to be true.

“I think Karl Rove is too smart for that,” noted one Democratic operative in Florida, referring to the president’s top political adviser.

Some view Harris’ hypothetical candidacy as nothing more than a trial balloon.

“Publicly her name is being floated, but there are other candidates who are more out in front in doing what they need to be doing in order to make a run for Senate next year,” said one GOP campaign operative.

A spokesman for Harris said she is completely focused on her House responsibilities at this point.

“Out of respect for our senior Senator from Florida, it is not even on her radar screen,” Harris Chief of Staff Dan Berger said.

Republican Rep. Mark Foley (Fla.) and former Rep. Bill McCollum (R) are all but in the race for Graham’s seat, assuming he runs for president. State House Speaker Johnnie Byrd (R) has also been mulling a bid, but sources have indicated his candidacy is looking less likely at this point. State Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher (R) and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez (R) are among the other names mentioned, although both are thought to be more interested in a 2006 gubernatorial run.

Many feel that McCollum carries too much baggage from his 2000 Senate loss to now-Sen. Bill Nelson (D), who defeated the then-Congressman 51 percent to 46 percent.

“If Graham steps down, we need to field somebody strong and it needs to be someone stronger than McCollum,” said the Florida Republican source.

McCollum named former Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), who retired in 2000, as his campaign chairman last week.

Foley, meanwhile, has angered GOP leaders and the White House in the past by voting against the party on key issues such as Trade Promotion Authority.

“It doesn’t appear they’re getting traction in Florida,” said the source familiar with Harris’ thinking, referring to the current field of Republicans. “There are some major fundraisers from around the state of Florida that have yet to commit to any of the people who have announced.”

While some sources suggested that party leaders and even the White House are not satisfied with the potential candidates, others said that perception is tied more to the fact that Graham’s move is still up in the air. They said a star-quality candidate could emerge once Graham bows out of the race.

Graham, a former governor and arguably the most popular politician in the state, would be heavily favored to win a fifth term if he runs. He is barred by Florida law from running for both Senate and president simultaneously, although there is still some speculation that he could re-enter the Senate race if he fails to win the presidential nomination.

Freshman Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) noted that serious recruitment cannot take place until Graham publicly makes his intentions known.

“Nobody’s in the race now because they have been encouraged by the White House,” Feeney said. “If one of these candidates had been urged by the White House, we’d see some sign of that.”

Feeney, who also played a pivotal role in the 2000 election while serving as Florida Speaker, said that Harris would “make a great candidate” for Senate.

He also indicated that he is not ready to make the same jump to the Senate just yet, although he maintained that he’d “never rule it out.”

“I like the House,” he said. “I’ve been so busy up here, I haven’t really thought about the next step.”

On the Democratic side, Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Panellas and Rep. Peter Deutsch are two of the most talked about potential candidates in an open-seat Senate race.

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), who indicated in December that he would definitely run if Graham did not, appeared to back off from that assertion last week.

“I’m keeping my options open,” Hastings said, adding that he has been accepting more and more invitations to events around the state. “I want to do it.”

As for a Harris Senate candidacy, Hastings said it “would be a little too premature” for the freshman, although he noted her high visibility would be a plus.

“I think she has high name recognition,” said Ana Cruz, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. “I think that she certainly would be considered a favorite for the Republicans. They love her.”

At the same time, some Republicans believe that Harris may have to work to shore up support in her district before jumping into a statewide race. They note the less-than-impressive margin Harris won her GOP-leaning district with last year.

Harris beat attorney Jan Schneider (D) 55 percent to 45 percent, in a district that voted overwhelmingly to re-elect Gov. Jeb Bush (R) last year. Schneider spent a little more than $300,000.

“She barely won her Congressional seat,” noted the Florida GOP aide. “She ran almost 20 points behind the governor in a Republican state. That’s just embarrassing.”