By Chris Cillizza
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 2, 2006
After pledging to personally donate $10 million to save her sagging Senate candidacy in Florida, Rep. Katherine Harris (R) is suffering a staff revolt -- the latest development in a political meltdown that had GOP operatives yesterday questioning whether she will be able to maintain a viable candidacy.
The Orlando Sentinel reported that lead strategist Ed Rollins, campaign manager Jamie Miller and spokeswoman Morgan Dobbs are planning to quit, adding their names to a long list of aides and political professionals who have abandoned Harris in recent days.
Harris's campaign did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment yesterday.
Republican strategists in Washington and Florida said the staff exodus -- which follows months of disarray in Harris's camp -- adds to their pessimism about GOP prospects for unseating Sen. Bill Nelson (D). Two recent surveys -- one conducted by the independent Mason-Dixon polling firm, the other by Strategic Vision, a Republican outfit -- found Harris trailing Nelson by double digits.
"Everyone knew going into this that it wasn't going to be all roses, but no one expected it to be this bad," said a veteran of Florida GOP politics, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly.
Since emerging on the national scene as Florida's secretary of state during the 2000 presidential recount, Harris has been a divisive figure -- beloved by the GOP base for her role in George W. Bush's victory, detested by Democrats for the same reason.
After winning election to the House in 2002, Harris expressed interest in a 2004 Senate bid but decided against it -- a decision greeted with relief by many party strategists who had worried publicly about the impact of her candidacy on Bush's reelection prospects in the state.
When Harris made clear she would challenge Nelson -- considered a top Republican target -- Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) immediately began searching for an alternate candidate but were unsuccessful.
Harris, meanwhile, was unable to build momentum for her candidacy, and several GOP officials attributed her problems in part to her consultant-heavy campaign team.
Chatter in Republican circles urging Harris to drop out of the race grew louder in February amid revelations that Harris had accepted illegal contributions -- unknowingly, she said -- from Mitchell Wade, the defense contractor implicated in the massive bribery scandal surrounding former representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.).
The staff attrition that had begun with the departure of campaign manager Jim Dornan, in late 2005, and finance director Mike Miller grew into an epidemic as no fewer than a half-dozen aides left. Perhaps the most significant departure was that of media consultant Adam Goodman, considered by many to be Harris's closest and most loyal adviser. Among her top confidants now, according to Florida news reports, is spiritual adviser Dale Burroughs, founder of the Biblical Heritage Institute and known in the campaign as "Dr. Dale."
Even Harris's decision, announced on national television last month, to donate $10 million of her personal fortune to the campaign was complicated by the fact that she first said she would use the inheritance left by her recently deceased father but then reversed course and said she would sell off assets to come up with the sum.
Several top GOP strategists doubted that Harris would make good even on that. "Is she going to put her money where her mouth is?" a national strategist asked. "If she doesn't do it soon, she may be forced to compete for the party's nomination."
The problem for Republicans is that the well of potential candidates appears to be dry. Rep. Mark Foley continues to consider a bid but would be hard-pressed to defeat Harris in a primary, according to Republicans not affiliated with either candidate. State House Speaker Allan Bense and Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings are mentioned, but both previously have turned down a chance to run for the Senate in 2006.