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Katherine Harris’ Shadow Still Hangs Over Florida Contest

Republicans in Florida and nationally are intent on knocking off Sen. Bill Nelson (D) when he runs for re-election next year. But they’re having to ask two questions. First, will Rep. Katherine Harris (R) run for his Senate seat? And second, when the heck is she going to make up her mind? [IMGCAP(1)]

Harris, now serving a second term in the House, is widely regarded as the frontrunner for the GOP Senate nomination if she wants it. But until the Congresswoman makes a decision about her future, Republican Senate recruiting in the state will be at a standstill.

More than a few Republicans privately express doubts about Harris’ strength in a general election. But they agree that in a GOP Senate primary, she would be an unstoppable powerhouse.

They note that rank-and-file Republicans love Harris, in part for the very visible role she played as Florida’s secretary of state who helped decide the 2000 presidential race for then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush. With considerable personal wealth and national fundraising ability, the Congresswoman would be a nightmare primary opponent for any would-be Senate hopeful.

Democrats, however, don’t have the same reaction. The sheer mention of her name is enough to cause Democrats in the Sunshine State (and elsewhere) to break out in hives. And the state’s fast-growing ranks of independent voters, while more restrained, tend to see the Congresswoman in an unappealing light.

Last year, Harris was re-elected with 55 percent of the vote in the Republican-leaning 13th Congressional district, running about 1 point behind President Bush. That’s about the same percentage she took two years earlier. Those showings aren’t likely to dispel serious challenges to her in the future, but the consistency of the results certainly reflects the polarization that defines her politically.

Harris’ claim on the GOP nomination — if she chooses to seek it — comes both from her notoriety in the state and from her place in the party’s pecking order.

She flirted with the Senate race last time but ultimately gave way to others, including now-Sen. Mel Martinez (R), the former Housing and Urban Development secretary who won a bitter, multicandidate primary after being wooed into the Senate race by the White House. Now, the Sarasota-area Congresswoman can argue that it is her turn.

If Harris does decide to challenge Nelson, most Republican insiders won’t be happy, but they are likely to rally to her cause. While they have serious doubts about her ability to win, they also know that a messy primary, which Harris would likely win anyway, would hamper the party’s chances of toppling Nelson.

But what if Harris opts to stay in the House instead?

Party activists and strategists would love to be scouring the state for potentially strong Senate candidates, but until the Congresswoman announces her own plans, no Republican of any stature is going to get too far out on the Senate campaign limb.

With relatively few Democratic Senate seats in play this cycle, Republicans see Nelson as one of the more vulnerable incumbents up for re-election.

A former state legislator, Congressman and state insurance commissioner, Nelson isn’t exactly a bomb-throwing liberal. But it’s much harder for him to claim the mantle of “centrist,” as he did early in his House career. According to National Journal’s 2004 Senate ratings, Nelson’s composite liberal score (combining economic, social and foreign issues) was 76.7, placing him virtually at the same place as then-Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.).

But Nelson was not among the 10 most moderate Democratic Senators, and his liberal composite score was much higher than that of Democratic Sens. Max Baucus of Montana (57.3), Mark Pryor of Arkansas (60.5), Evan Bayh of Indiana (61.7) and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut (69.8), just to mention four.

A bigger problem for Nelson is the state’s continued high rate of growth.

In a state like Florida, with new voters streaming into it every day, incumbents lose some of their advantage. New voters have nothing invested in the existing officeholders; often they don’t even know who the incumbents are.

In 2000, Nelson beat his relatively weak GOP opponent, then-Rep. Bill McCollum, by just less than 285,000 votes. But between then and the 2004 election, the Florida electorate mushroomed from 5.8 million voters to 7.4 million voters — an increase of a whopping 1.6 million votes. Nelson will have to introduce himself to many of those new voters, as well as to others who are still flowing into the state.

Of course, 2006 is a midterm election, so turnout in the state should be down considerably. But with an open governorship in play in addition to the Senate race, there will be plenty of first-time voters in Florida next November.

In a state with as many seniors as Florida, the Republican push to overhaul Social Security could be a wild card for 2006. But the victories of Martinez and President Bush last year in the state, combined with the re-election win by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush in 2002, rightly have Republicans feeling more optimistic about their fundamental strength in Florida.

One way or another, the GOP should be able to mount a serious challenge to Nelson. But the longer Harris takes in making her own plans, the harder it will be to get their act together for ’06.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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