Three years ago, Katherine Harris gave the Democrats headaches in Florida. Now she's doing the same for Republicans.
The former Florida secretary of state and current Republican congresswoman helped hand the White House to George W. Bush during the Florida recount of 2000. Now she is seriously weighing a bid for the seat being vacated next year by retiring Sen. Bob Graham (D). Harris, who has less than a year of legislative experience in Washington under her belt, told The Miami Herald recently that she's "getting a lot of anecdotal evidence" that her candidacy would help Bush's re-election efforts. She also said her campaign would allow her to "gut all the inane arguments that [Democrats] make about the recount, which are really ludicrous."
It's not clear how Harris plans to "gut" arguments about the 2000 Florida recount -- nor is it clear how running for the Senate would allow her to do that. What is clear is that neither President Bush nor Gov. Jeb Bush (R-Fla.) wants these arguments to be rehashed during the next presidential race at all. As a result, both want Harris to keep clear of the spotlight in 2004.
White House advisers are pressuring Mel Martinez, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to run instead. They believe he could rally support from Cuban Americans, who make up a large voting bloc in Florida and whom Miami-Dade Mayor (and Democratic candidate for the Senate) Alex Penelas is targeting. Martinez, though, apparently wants to sit out this race and instead run for governor in 2006, when Jeb Bush's term is up.
The governor is reportedly ticked off that Washington is trying to take such an active role in his state's upcoming Senate race. Maybe his older brother's advisers don't trust him after he nearly failed to deliver the state in 2000. Meanwhile, Jeb Bush is apparently pulling for Dan Webster, a Republican state senator, to claim the nomination.
Just in case things weren't complicated enough for the Bush brothers, former Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.) -- whom the White House dissed in the 2002 GOP primary by promoting his opponent, current Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) -- is thinking of throwing his hat into the ring. (Smith moved to Florida after he lost his New Hampshire Senate seat.)
But it's the prospect of a Harris candidacy that should be causing both Bushes to lose sleep. While she would bring a proven fund-raising record and high name recognition to the ticket, she is also one of the party's most polarizing figures. And she'll remind Floridians that many of their votes for president in the 2000 election simply didn't count. In a state that Bush won by just 537 votes that year, he can't afford any problems. (You can also bet that the Democratic nominees for the presidency and the Senate will mention her name at every campaign stop in the state.)
This is not to say that the president and his brother have abandoned Harris entirely. President Bush wants her to run against freshman Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) in 2006, when his own re-election is safely behind him. And Harris appeared at a fund raiser with the president earlier this month where he raked in $860,000.
But don't expect Harris to just follow the Bushes' game plan without a fight. As I wrote at TAP Online last year, GOPers like House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) heaped praise on Harris before she even got to Washington, and even gave her a key leadership position.
There's another twist here as well. Conventional wisdom has long held that it was the Democrats who needed to avoid refighting the 2000 battle in 2004. No one likes a sore loser, and many strategists worried that if the Dems appeared to be whining about the ambiguous results of 2000, voters might believe that the party hadn't moved on during the last four years, even though the country has.
But the flap over a potential Harris candidacy reveals that Republicans may be just as scared of the shadow of 2000 as Democrats. September 11 may have helped the administration shake the specter of illegitimacy that haunted its first nine months in office, but a Harris candidacy -- and the glut of national media attention that it would focus on Florida -- could revive in voters' minds the question of whether Bush really won the 2000 election fair and square. As he tries to defend his actions in Iraq and his handling of the economy, that's one additional headache that Bush won't want to deal with.
So neither Democrats nor Republicans have an interest in refighting 2000. That's a good thing for the country, the voters and pretty much everyone -- except Katherine Harris. It will always be in Harris' interest to rehash 2000, because she will always be a creature of those strange weeks that followed the presidential election -- and because the GOP owes her big-time for her role in the recount, and she knows it.
There can be little doubt that Harris sees 2000 as her ticket to bigger and better things in the world of politics; the fact that she wrote a book about her role in the debacle (and hilariously titled it Center of the Storm: Practicing Principled Leadership in Times of Crisis) suggests that soon after the recount ended, she devised a plan to milk her newfound notoriety for all it was worth.
Then there was the quote she recently gave to the Herald, which showed just how much Harris continues to live in the past -- and why both Bushes want her to go away. "What pains me deepest is the fact that millions of people literally have angst and gut-level pain because they believed they were disenfranchised, that their votes weren't counted, that Al Gore could have been elected if not for one maneuver," she said. "All these years they've felt that angst, and it's unnecessary, totally unnecessary."
If Harris runs, it will be the rest of the Republican Party that will feel angst next year.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.