GOP Discourages Harris Senate Run in '06

Katherine Harris (search) may have been the darling of the Republican establishment when she stuck her neck out as Florida secretary of state to halt the 2000 presidential election recount, but she doesn't seem to be getting much love from GOP powerbrokers today.

According to sources in Washington and Florida, the Republican establishment is not thrilled with the Republican congresswoman's recent announcement that she is strongly considering a run for U.S Senate in 2006. In fact, GOP leaders are actively courting another Florida Republican to run against Harris in next summer's primary.

"The resistance from the establishment is based on their perception, and that's based on public and private polling that she would have a very, very hard time winning," said Stu Rothenberg of the Washington D.C-based campaign tracker, the Rothenberg Political Report.

On her Web site, Harris said she will make a "formal" announcement in July. Though she has not done so yet, in June she made clear her intention to challenge Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson (search).

"I am confident that I can accomplish more for the people of Florida, and experience reminds me I've always done best when I started out as the underdog, ready with all my heart and soul to tell it like it is, and do what's right," Harris said in her online statement.

Despite her intentions, Republicans in Florida as high up as Gov. Jeb Bush have been encouraging at least one other Republican to run for Nelson's seat. The maneuvering has left some of Harris' supporters inside Florida's 13th congressional district confused.

"I frankly happen to be very disappointed to read articles in the media that seem to indicate that the establishment isn't supporting her, I certainly don't get that sense personally," said Manatee County Republican Committee Chairman Mark Flanagan, who estimated that Harris has the support of every GOP county chair in the state.

"Politics is local and Republicans in southwest Florida in particular are proud of Katherine Harris and are very thankful that she has been there for us as citizens and as Republicans," Flanagan added.

"Most of our folks are put off by it and feel that it's not helpful for the Washington people to be putting this out there," said Sarasota County Republican Committee Chairman Bob Waechter. "Katherine enjoys tremendous support here."

Representatives with the Harris campaign say their internal polls show promise. While acknowledging that the former secretary of state does indeed have some negative numbers to overcome, her backers say Republicans love her and once everyone else in the state gets to know her record in Congress since 2002, her approval ratings all around will increase.

"We believe when all is said and done the Republican Party will line up behind her," said campaign spokesman Adam Goodman, noting that Harris has brought longtime Republican consultant Ed Rollins (search) and GOP pollster Ed Goeas (search) onto the team. "You have to earn it, it doesn't matter how long you have been in office. Katherine is fully prepared for that challenge."

But other Republican strategists say GOP polling indicates high negatives, particularly among independents who see her as a polarizing figure. They say those numbers cannot be ignored.

"It really came down to looking at the polls," said one strategist close to the Republican Party in Washington, who noted that a perception persists that "she has created this legacy of divisiveness, unfairly or not."

During the unprecedented 2000 election, which hinged on the tally for Florida, Harris certified George W. Bush as the winner over former Vice President Al Gore by a mere 537 votes. The certification halted a statewide recount supported by Democrats. The decision forced the case to the courts, with the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruling in favor of Bush more than a month after the election.

For her role, Harris is remembered by some as either hero or villain. The fact that she co-chaired President Bush's 2000 election campaign in Florida made her a ripe target for Democrats. Fellow Republicans, on the other hand, rewarded her contributions with a congressional victory in 2002.

But when Harris wanted to run for retiring Democratic Sen. Bob Graham's seat in 2004, the White House weighed in against it, supporting then-Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez, who ultimately won the seat.

Harris supporters deny she was dissuaded by the party establishment from the Senate run, saying she voluntarily stepped aside with the implicit suggestion from party leaders that they would support her in a future Senate chase.

But, this time around, Florida's governor has encouraged House Speaker Allen Bense to run for Nelson's seat in 2006. Bense's spokesman told that the speaker will announce soon whether he plans to run for the statewide office.

"The governor was encouraging him, and has encouraged him to run," said spokesman Towson Fraser, adding that Bense has already met with Washington heavyweights like North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole (search), chairwoman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and chief White House political advisor Karl Rove.

Gov. Bush's office did not return phone calls seeking comment.

A June Mason-Dixon poll showed that Nelson would beat Harris 53 to 36 percent if the election were held at the time. Her approval rating with voters in that poll was 32 percent. Nearly the same number, 30 percent, viewed her unfavorably.

A poll conducted by Republican polling firm Strategic Vision last week showed Harris would lose a head-to-head contest with Nelson 40 to 48 percent, but would easily win a primary against several other prominent Florida Republicans, including Bense.

This has some Republicans nervous, since they believe Nelson could be more vulnerable if a less polarizing figure than Harris were to challenge him directly. For instance, former Central Command commander Gen. Tommy Franks (search) trails two points behind Nelson in the same Strategic Vision poll.

"People don't dislike [Nelson], but if the Republicans could unite behind a strong nominee they could stage a strong challenge against Bill Nelson," Rothenberg said.

Supporters say Harris has the grassroots behind her, and her 2000 election role will not hurt her in a statewide contest.

"Personally, I don't see any other credible candidate in the Republican Party," said Flanagan. "I believe Katherine Harris will be a fantastic U.S. senator and I am thrilled that she has the courage to start her campaign."

Spokesman Goodman said Harris plans to run a positive campaign and has no hard feelings towards her naysayers. He said she has been the underdog before since her first successful run for the state Legislature in 1994, and likes the moniker "underdog makes good."

"Everyone has their right to a different point of view," he added. "Mark our words, at the end of the day, Katherine Harris will be nominated with a unified party behind her."