Harris announces run for U.S. Senate

Her candidacy, expected to draw impassioned supporters and detractors, is to be formally announced next month.

Published June 8, 2005

WASHINGTON - Republican Rep. Katherine Harris, Florida's most famous member of Congress, declared her candidacy for the U.S. Senate Tuesday, hoping to unseat Sen. Bill Nelson, the last statewide-elected Democrat.

Harris, the controversial former secretary of state whose name became synonymous with Florida's 2000 presidential recount, announced her decision through political consultant Adam Goodman, who called reporters midday.

As Goodman placed calls from her Sarasota office, Harris could be heard in the background using another phone to reach supporters.

"I am not officially launching my campaign," she told one, "but wanted to let you know today."

Harris had even kept key Republicans insiders guessing this week about whether she would run for the Senate. As word spread, a half-dozen Republicans in the Sarasota-centered congressional district began jockeying to succeed her.

Harris' formal Senate campaign launch, scheduled for next month, comes just 18 months after she sidestepped a 2004 run.

Though Harris denied it, key Republicans said privately that the White House discouraged her from that race because the president did not want to share his re-election ballot with the Florida official so closely associated with his controversial 2000 win.

As secretary of state in 2000, Harris pushed to halt the recount in several Florida counties against the wishes of supporters for Democratic Vice President Al Gore. Eventually, the courts intervened.

With her iconic appeal to Republican loyalists and huge potential to raise funds nationally, Harris is expected to win the GOP primary. No other big-name Republican has entered the race.

"It certainly clarifies who will be the big heavyweight in this race," said Cory Tilley, a former adviser to Gov. Jeb Bush who now runs a Tallahassee public relations firm.

But even Republicans acknowledge that Harris' polarizing history makes her fate in the 2006 general election far less sure.

"She will energize the core constituencies in both parties. The Republicans will rise to her defense should she win the nomination because of who she is," said J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, a Republican strategist who advised Harris during the recount. "The Democrats from around the country will be flying in to rent rooms in Florida and raise money to campaign against her."

In Washington on Tuesday, Nelson was standing before a huge map of the Gulf of Mexico, discussing his plans to stop a new proposal for oil and gas drilling off Florida's Gulf Coast when an aide read him a bulletin about Harris' decision. He barely reacted. "Well, I am just going to keep doing my job," he said.

The GOP has identified Nelson's seat as one that could help them keep their majority in the Senate. This year, Republicans deemed Nelson as "vulnerable" when polls showed he had approval ratings below 50 percent. But those same polls suggested the one-time astronaut with a slow Southern drawl would beat any Republican challenger, particularly Harris.

Though Harris enjoys passionate following among many, she won re-election last year with only 55 percent of the vote, the lowest of any Florida congressional incumbent.

Harris appeared to address such speculation in her statement Tuesday: "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."

Already Tuesday, Harris was drawing partisan fire.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee tied Harris to embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and criticized her for accepting questionable campaign contributions and traveling around the globe on trips paid for by taxpayers.

"As a public official, Katherine Harris is better known for generating controversies than for her achievements on behalf of the people she represents," said the committee's communication director, Phil Singer.

In April, online political group MoveOn.org aired radio ads bashing her and nine other Republican members of Congress for supporting the controversial bankruptcy revamping bill signed by President Bush. MoveOn targeted Republicans seen as having bigger ambitions in 2006, and noted that Harris had received $142,000 from companies with a financial stake in the law.

Harris and Nelson have similar political pedigrees.

Harris, a 48-year-old fourth-generation Floridian, served four years in the state Senate before beating incumbent Republican Secretary of State Sandra Mortham in 1998. She joined Congress in 2002. She is the granddaughter of Ben Hill Griffin Jr., the late citrus baron whose name now graces the University of Florida football stadium.

Nelson, a 62-year-old fifth-generation Floridian, parlayed a seat in the state House representing Brevard County to a 12-year congressional seat before returning to Tallahassee as a two-term treasurer and insurance commissioner.

Nelson has $3-million in bank. Harris has about $250,000.

Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington, said Harris' early announcement suggests she's looking to raise millions more. But it won't benefit her alone, Duffy said.

"Her presence in the race will help him raise money and that's not something he's terribly good at," said Duffy. But all Florida Republicans should also benefit as well, she said. "With her in the race, it energizes Republicans, which the party needs to have happen for the governor's race."

Harris' decision is expected to knock several other Republicans out of the race, including Reps. Mark Foley of West Palm Beach, Dave Weldon of Indialantic and Ginny Brown-Waite of Brooksville. Gov. Bush and Gen. Tommy Franks have said they're not interested.

Potential replacements for Harris' heavily-Republican congressional seat include Tramm Hudson, the former Sarasota County GOP chairman who raised more than $100,000 to re-elect President Bush; and Vern Buchanan, a Sarasota millionaire and key fundraiser for Sen. Mel Martinez's election.

--Times staff writers Wes Allison and Bill Adair contributed to this report.