Katherine Harris' Comedy of Errors

  • Share
  • Read Later
Considering how much ridicule she endured from political opponents during and after the 2000 Florida presidential election recount debacle, it's almost astounding that Katherine Harris would willingly put herself in a position to be the butt of more jokes. But as a candidate in the absurd political circus that has been the Republican Senate primary race, that is just what the former Secretary of State and two-term congresswoman has done, and she now finds herself imploding on the eve of the primary election next Tuesday, painted as a bumbling, Starbucks-swilling, intolerant party pariah.

It is only thanks to her unknown and ineffective trio of opponents that Harris, 49, is nonetheless expected by many analysts and recent polls to win the primary — before undoubtedly losing the November election to incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. "It really has been a disastrous campaign of epic proportions," says Aubrey Jewett, political science professor of University of Central Florida in Orlando. "I don't think you've ever seen anyone fall from grace so fast in their own party."

How the normally disciplined Republican machine let their primary for such an important office turn into a laughing stock is grist for comedy shows and conspiracy theories alike. Abandoned early and publicly by both state and national party leaders — everyone from Jeb Bush to Karl Rove reportedly tried to recruit an alternative candidate — Harris's every campaign stumble and fashion faux-pas has eclipsed virtually all other issues, even her questionable dealings with Mitchell Wade, the defense contractor who funnelled $32,000 in illegal contributions to her 2004 reelection campaign and has also plead guilty to bribing California congressman Duke Cunningham. (Harris has said she is fully cooperating with the investigation into the illegal donations, and prosecutors say there is no evidence she knew they violated the law; Wade is cooperating with the investigation and has yet to be sentenced.)

Harris has incurred so many self-inflicted wounds that Democrats for the most part have kept quiet and stayed out of the way. Her campaign has suffered from two en masse walkouts of staffers who describe her as erratic and abusive to staff and who often go on to dish insider tales to the media. Her congressional office also has seen a lot of turnover. Harris believes she has been sabotaged by former staffers and the national party, who she said were "putting knives in her back," according to the Tampa Tribune.

On August 17, Harris promoted a major campaign event at the Orlando Executive Airport hosted by top party officials including Sen. Mel Martinez and Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings. When none of the dignitaries and no elected officials showed up, Harris said they were probably lost when a tree fell on the original hangar and the event was moved. However, airport officials said no hangar had been damaged and the event was held where originally scheduled.

When newspapers aren't covering the more than two dozen staffers who have departed her campaign, her press often veers toward the salacious: her clothing choices are inappropriately tight-fitting to emphasize her bust line; she is so hooked on Starbucks coffee that she requires all Starbucks stores be mapped out on her campaign routes.

The latest headlines revolve around Harris's comments to a Florida Baptist journal that the separation of church and state is "a lie" and that if Christians are not elected, politicians will "legislate sin." She has since backtracked, claiming that she "had been speaking to a Christian audience, addressing a common misperception that people of faith should not be actively involved in government" and that her comments reflected "her deep grounding in Judeo-Christian values". Nonetheless, major newspapers around the state are endorsing 71-year-old LeRoy Collins Jr. whose biggest selling points are that he is the son of Florida's beloved 1950s Gov. LeRoy Collins, he has promised to serve only one term — and most important of all, he is not Katherine Harris.

In defense of Harris's performance, Susan MacManus, political professor and analyst from the University of South Florida in Tampa, notes that Harris has labored under the stress of her father's death, surgery for an ovarian mass, the undermining by her own party and a certain amount of political sexism.

"I think the coverage of the trivial is what is most unfair," says MacManus. "Everybody has some quirky tale to tell about her."

Of course, nobody said politics was fair. Harris is such polarizing figure that she could motivate more Democrats to vote in the general election, which means that come November, Jewett says, Republican leaders might regret not getting behind Harris."They are marching into a race that might go beyond just losing but really might be a drag on other parts of the ticket."