Rep. Harris Wins GOP Primary For U.S. Senate Seat in Florida

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 6, 2006

MIAMI, Sept. 5 -- Shunned by party leaders and battered by repeated campaign controversies, Rep. Katherine Harris nonetheless held on to enough support from the state's Republican voters Tuesday to win Florida's Senate primary convincingly over three little-known candidates.

It was in many ways an embarrassing result for state GOP leaders: They had urged the former Florida secretary of state, a polarizing figure since her role in the 2000 presidential election recount, not to run.

Harris now faces Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in a race that strategists have said may be impossible for her to win. Polls have shown Nelson with a lead as wide as 30 percentage points.

Harris told supporters Tuesday night her victory shows that they together can "courageously beat the odds."

"We shall be victorious this November in sending Bill Nelson home," she promised.

"The die-hard Republican voters, they love her," said Jennifer Duffy, editor of the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election newsletter. "They think she got a bum rap in 2000."

But Harris is far less popular in other circles, and she is often a target of ridicule for her fashion and sometimes erratic pronouncements. Republicans had targeted Nelson as vulnerable a year ago, but his seat is now deemed relatively safe.

"There is probably not a Senate race in the country that is more of a lost opportunity than this one," Duffy said.

In the race to succeed term-limited Gov. Jeb Bush (R), state Attorney General Charlie Crist emerged from Tuesday's balloting as the Republican candidate, trouncing state Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher. Rep. Jim Davis defeated state Sen. Rod Smith in the Democratic primary, getting 47 percent of the votes to 41 percent for Smith. Davis, considered the more liberal, pro-environment candidate, relied heavily on big-name endorsements.

Before the filing deadline in May, GOP leaders sought to recruit other high-profile candidates for the Senate race, including state House Speaker Allan G. Bense; former congressman Joe Scarborough, now a television host; and Rep. Mark Foley.

"I just don't believe she can win," the governor told reporters at the time.

But the recruiting efforts failed, and on Tuesday Harris faced off against Orlando lawyer Will McBride; LeRoy Collins Jr., a retired Navy admiral and the son of a former popular governor; and Peter Monroe, a developer. None of her rivals is well-known in the state.

The Harris campaign stumbled repeatedly during the run-up to the election. Fundraising fell short, prompting Harris to pledge $10 million of her own money. News stories linked her to a defense contractor convicted of bribing then-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.). And staff members repeatedly quit, sometimes citing her alternately abusive and flirty behavior.

Most recently, she was criticized for calling separation of church and state "a lie we have been told," and she angered many by saying: "If you're not electing Christians, then in essence you are going to legislate sin."

Earlier Tuesday, spokeswoman Jennifer Marks predicted Harris would win because "she has a clear record of leadership and results," and said Harris's focus on immigration reform and tax cuts resonates with people.

With 98 percent of precincts reporting in the winner-take-all primary, Harris had 49 percent of the votes, McBride 30 percent, Collins 15 percent and Monroe 5 percent.

Running "against a candidate who is somewhat notorious and has universal name identification with the state, the biggest challenge has been time -- time to introduce Will as a viable alternative," said Jack St. Martin, McBride's campaign manager. "She clearly can't be competitive with Nelson. That's been echoed from the grass roots to the top of the party in Florida. I think voters were looking for a viable alternative."

The Harris campaign outspent the McBride campaign by a margin of 5 to 1, he said.


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