Seven in scramble to replace Harris

Democrats hope to profit from Katherine Harris’ divisive history to capture her House seat. “Wishful thinking,” says a national GOP leader.

Published June 25, 2006

SARASOTA — In this tony Gulf Coast city that prides itself on a refined attitude and a generous commitment to all things cultural, a nasty fight is brewing.

The race to replace Republican Katherine Harris in Congress has turned into a free-for-all where seven candidates have raised millions of dollars and are now resorting to name-calling.

Nationally, Republicans and Democrats are eyeing the seat, and not just because it’s in the heart of Katherine Harris country, though that doesn’t hurt.

Democrats say the district could be one of the few that could give their party control of the U.S. House. Party leaders, including the head of the powerful group that helps Democrats across the nation run, have even take the unusual step of endorsing a candidate before the September primary. Even Republicans acknowledge that the GOP-drawn seat could be vulnerable, though they still think it’s unlikely to go to a Democrat.

But it’s not clear voters are paying attention.

Candidates, both Republicans and Democrats, complain that Harris’ soap opera-esque troubles in her campaign for U.S. Senate overshadow their campaign events, consume local media coverage and distract voters. Potential donors were even reluctant to contribute because of predictions that Harris’s Senate race troubles would send her back into the House race.

“It’s all about Katherine,” bemoaned Republican candidate Vern Buchanan, who has been running for almost a year.

Less than three months before voters head to the polls for the primaries, potential voters in Sarasota, when asked about candidates in the congressional race, are likely to steer the conversation to Harris. Love her, hate her, it doesn’t matter. Some don’t know she isn’t running for re-election.

“Anybody but Katherine,” declared University of South Florida graduate student Catherine Hartill, 38, on a recent afternoon as she left the downtown Selby Public Library. It’s a phrase that has appeared on bumper stickers in years past.

But having Harris remain part of the discussion doesn’t bother Christine Jennings. As one of two Democrats running for the seat, Jennings is trying to take advantage of Harris’ divisive history as Florida secretary of state in the bitter 2000 presidential recount.

“We profit from that,” said Jennings, who has the backing of national Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “That will be a charger until Election Day.”

Independent political analysts who handicap the nation’s races consider the Sarasota seat one of a few dozen competitive House seats to watch across the country. It’s one of two in Florida; the other is the Fort Lauderdale district long held by Republican Rep. Clay Shaw.

The Democrats would have to pick up 15  seats to take back the majority in the House, where the Republicans have 231, the Democrats 201 and the rest are independent or vacant.Democrats, and some analysts, say the combination of Washington scandals and worries about Iraq have given the party its best chance in years to pick up the seats it would need to gain the House majority.

Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political science professor known for his election year Crystal Ball, puts the race in the 30 most competitive House contests in the nation. He predicts the Democrats have a reasonable shot if the GOP nominates a “weakened, cash-strapped candidate” in the general election or if Democrats win big in the two races at the top of the Florida ticket — U.S. Senate and governor.

“It’s not impossible that this district could go Democratic,” Sabato said.

But for now, most analysts still see the congressional seat south of Pinellas County leaning Republican, even though Harris won her races in 2004 and 2002 by a surprisingly low 55 percent.

“National Democrats must come to terms with the fact that momentum for the midterm elections will not materialize simply because they preordain it in the media,” said U.S. Rep. Thomas Reynolds of New York, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which helps candidates run for the House. “At some point, they will have to accept that winning in districts like (Florida District 13) is wishful thinking on their part.”

The district is a mix of urban and rural. Retirees tend to gravitate to the coastal areas of Sarasota and Manatee counties while farmers grow tomatoes and citrus inland. The more educated and wealthy tend to live close to Sarasota, renowned for its art museums, theater and symphony performances.

Republicans outnumber Democrats 46 percent to 33 percent in registration, but many from both parties say some of those registered Republicans often stray from their party.

“Down here there are a lot of people who are Republicans in name only,” said Henry Bright, chairman of the Democratic Executive Committee of Sarasota. “That gives you a better entry into the halls of power.”
Still, Republicans have won the district in every presidential election since 1992. George W. Bush beat John Kerry with 56 percent of the vote in 2004.

U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican who won by a narrow margin in 2004, estimates the state’s political landscape won’t change much this year.

“The Democrats are acting like they can win every seat,” he said. “I don’t think it’s quite the year they anticipate.”

Several of the seven candidates said they couldn’t pass up the chance to run for a rare open congressional seat.
Three candidates have served in the Florida Legislature. Two headed their local Republican party, and several are business people, including two bankers. At least three are millionaires.

Already, the candidates have raised a combined total of more than $3.3-million, according to the last campaign finance report tallying contributions before April. Some are expected to put in significant amounts of their own money later.

Buchanan, considered by some the front-runner in the Republican primary, has raised the most by far ­— $1.6-million — and already has aired TV ads. Two Sarasota bankers — Republican Tramm Hudson and Democrat Jennings — have raised the most after Buchanan. No one else comes close.

“I’m just focusing on running on experience, having a track record,” said Republican Nancy Detert, a state legislator from Venice who must give up her seat in Tallahassee because of term limits. “These days, people are fed up with people in Washington with money. I’m not going to focus on the money.”

Mark Flanagan, a former state legislator who led the Republican Party of Manatee, jumped into the race on the last qualifying day and has not had to report what he has raised. Flanagan is the only candidate from a county other than Sarasota and hopes to benefit by securing much of the Manatee vote.

The field includes five Republicans and two Democrats, both of whom have run before.

Robert Waechter, chairman of the Republican Party of Sarasota, said Democrats are counting on Republican infighting in the primary to weaken the GOP’s nominee in the general election. He has assurances that won’t happen, he said.

But the accusations have already started.

They accuse each other of trying to buy seats. They accuse each other of running for Congress so they can build name recognition for bigger races down the road. They accuse each other of being dishonest about their views on hot-button issues, such as abortion.

None of that has stopped Nathan Gonzales, political editor at the Rothenberg Political Report, from predicting the district will still vote Republican in November.

Gonzales said the Democrats would have had a better shot at the seat if Harris had run for re-election. “She’s a polarizing figure,” he said. “It would have been much easier for the Democrats to run against her.”

Times researchers Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Anita Kumar can be reached at akumar@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0576.