Fla. Senate: GOP Insiders -- Anyone But Harris
Circle May 12 on your calendar.
That's the final day that candidates can file to run for Senate in Florida. And although Rep. Katherine Harris (R) is already in the race, both the White House and Gov. Jeb Bush (R) are sending clear signals that they want outgoing state House Speaker Allan Bense (R) to jump into the contest.
On Wednesday, White House political director Sara Taylor praised Bense as a "class act" and a "very strong leader," adding cryptically that he "would be great in any office he ran for." The previous day, Jeb Bush said he had "doubts" about whether Harris could win again Sen. Bill Nelson (D) this fall. "There may be other candidates who aspire to the job who have a better chance of winning," he said
Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) said today that Bense has a "number of skill sets to prepare him to make the race instantly competitive." As for Harris, Foley said there is "alarming concern" that if she is the party's Senate nominee it could spell trouble for other Republican candidates on the ballot. "Something has to change here or we'll all spend our time explaining her candidacy to voters," he added.
Bense, who has previously rejected entreaties enter the race, is once again considering a run and may even be leaning toward getting in, according to sources both in Washington and Florida. Bense has said he will not make any decision until the legislature adjourns for the year, which is expected to happen either tomorrow or Saturday. Once the legislative session ends, Bense will have until next Friday to make his intentions known. He did not return a call seeking comment today.
With the courting of Bense in full flower, Harris has decided to run her first ad of the campaign -- the timing of which leads to speculation that she is hoping to intimidate Bense (or anyone else who may be considering a run). The commercial, which was produced by Wilson-Grand Communications, paints Harris as a proven leader who always stands by her convictions. "There's a big difference between Bill Nelson and me," says Harris toward the end of the spot. "I never give up and I never give in."
Although Harris hasn't given up on the race, most Republican strategists have given up on her. When Harris made her bid official last year there was considerable skepticism about her ability to win crossover votes given her divisive role as secretary of state during the divisive 2000 presidential recount. Harris has done little to dispel thouse doubts as she has watched as several iterations of campaign staff have abandoned her and the money she was expected to raise has simply not materialized.
Attempting to answer rumors that she would drop from the race, Harris made a surreal appearance on Fox News Channel's "Hannity & Colmes" show in March to announce that she would remain in the race and would donate $10 million of her personal fortune to her candidacy. Republican insiders scoffed at the pledge, insisting she would not ultimately dump that amount into the campaign. At the end of March, she had made a $3 million donation, which brought her cash on hand to $3.7 million -- still well behind the $10 million Nelson has to spend on the race.
If Bense does get into the contest, fundraising will be a critical challenge. He begins in a nearly $4 million hole against Harris with the primary set for Sept. 5. The words of support from the White House and the governor of Florida seem to indicate that the party establishment would quickly unite behind Bense -- a development that should help him bring in campaign funds.
Foley pointed out that Bense has a "thick rolodex" from his time in legislature's leadership and also has the ability to write a personal check to fund the contest. "He has personal wealth and people up in the Panhandle [who] are legendary fundraisers," said Foley. One complicating factor for Bense's fundraising is the fact that he is on his way out as speaker, meaning that many people who might give simply to curry favor for their legislative agendas in Florida could well take a pass this time.
The next week will be a critical one for Republicans in Florida. If Bense runs, he provides a real opportunity to keep Harris off the November ballot, which may be as important to Republicans in the state as actually beating Nelson. Polls have shown Harris running far behind Nelson; one poll recently conducted in her own 13th District showed her favorability numbers slipping drastically.
Bense is a clean slate as compared to Harris, and while he would need to raise tens of millions in short order to be competitive with Nelson in the fall, he clearly offers Republicans a better shot at winning the seat.
May 4, 2006; 3:48 PM ET
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