FORT WALTON BEACH, FLORIDA
KATHERINE HARRIS DOESN'T have a bodyguard anymore. More than five years after the events that made her infamous, the death threats have passed. The man who nearly ran her down with his car--"exercising my political expression," he said--has been dealt with by the authorities. But she's not quite in the clear.
"Can we throw things at her?" asks a scraggly man in a black jacket who has just been informed that Harris, now a second-term U.S. representative from Sarasota, is a few yards ahead, preparing to ride in the annual Mardi Gras parade here. Too late--the parade is underway, and his target rolls by in the bed of a green pickup truck festooned with red, white, and blue signs that declare her current life mission: HARRIS FOR SENATE.
Under a gray sky, people of all ages have lined the parade route, their necks draped in Mardi Gras beads. Even the dogs sport necklaces. The older folks relax in beach chairs, the younger ones drink beer and holler for beads and candy. Directly behind Harris, island music blares from a float saluting Jimmy Buffett. It's not the most dignified setting, but Harris takes to it comfortably. She laughs and waves as she tosses strands of beads into outstretched arms. "Nice catch!" she'll say, or, "Sorry, bad throw!"
Most people in this heavily Republican Gulf Coast panhandle town cheer her on. "Go Kathy!" they yell. "Yeah, Katherine!" But there is also a running commentary from both sides about the main thing on everyone's mind whenever Harris is around.
"Loved what ya did to Al Gore!" exclaims one man who lunges from the crowd and into the street, pointing at Harris for emphasis.
"Give me some chads! Give me some chads!" a woman shouts.
"Oh, we don't like Katherine Harris," a man explains to his young daughters, who look vaguely alarmed. "She's the one who made Bush the president."
On it goes. "Count me twice!" someone yells. And from the porch of a house comes a strange and singular cry: "LIEEEEBERRRMAAAAAAAN!"
Welcome to Karl Rove's nightmare. Republicans are bracing for a potentially disastrous 2006 election, and there's no clearer example of their troubles than Katherine Harris's peculiar candidacy. Here in Florida, Republicans see a sitting duck in the Democratic Senate incumbent--freshman Bill Nelson, whose job approval rating has dipped perilously below 50 percent. All Republicans need is a strong challenger--not one of the most divisive figures in American politics. Harris may be a star on conservative turf like Fort Walton Beach, but, in poll after poll, Nelson trounces her. In one February survey, Nelson led Harris by nine points and thrashed her among prized independent voters by a 64-18 margin. A newer poll has Nelson up by a 49-34 spread. Harris also has a dubious track record--underwhelming victories in her two campaigns for the House, despite massive name recognition and fund-raising advantages. Harris is so toxic, Republicans say, that she could hurt other GOP candidates, perhaps even threatening the party's chances at holding the governor's job.
That's why, since announcing plans to run for Senate last June, Harris has received all the hospitality of a bag lady who has wandered into Tiffany & Co. Republicans openly wrung their hands and mounted a frenzied, painfully public, and thus far futile search for an alternate candidate. But it wasn't just Harris's ballot-box liability that rankled her party. It was the mere fact of her reappearance on the national stage, a most unwelcome reminder that the very legitimacy of Bush's presidency has always been in dispute. However much Bush may appreciate Harris's performance in 2000, rewarding her is surely not worth risking a Senate seat and reminding the world of the undignified way he came to office.
But Harris has no intention of going away. She is a woman with unfinished business, determined to undo her popular image as a vapid, makeup-glazed henchwoman--and perhaps even to fulfill a kind of divine calling. The maddening paradox she faces is that the more she tries to run away from the 2000 recount, the more she--and her party--has to relive it.
THE SICKLY SWEET smell of grease and butter is in the air. It's Saturday morning at a Golden Corral family restaurant in Panama City, and Harris has stopped by to chat up some diners. Harris, 48, is smartly dressed and laden with jewelry, as is the usual style of a citrus heiress who once estimated her net worth at $5.5 million (and married a rich Swede for good measure). A pair of Gucci sunglasses rest atop her head. Most conspicuously, the infamously severe makeup (liberal media photo-doctoring, she charges) has been scaled back to a tasteful dusting of pastels.
Far from her shrewish reputation, Harris bounces through the bustling restaurant with all the good cheer of a sorority president. She is shepherded by a local Republican activist named Vicki Doolittle, who moves a table ahead of Harris, prepping the patrons for her imminent visit. "Remember the recount, with the votes and all?" Doolittle tells one family. "She was the one that took care of it!"
For supporters like Doolittle, Harris all but earned a Senate nomination through her heroism in the recount. Harris insists she only "followed the law." But she'll forever be seen as a kingmaker. At a local GOP dinner in 2001, for instance, Harris had to correct a well-intentioned introduction that described her as having "assisted" Bush's election. Harris herself once told a reporter about asking a fourth-grade girl visiting her office what she thought the secretary of state's job entailed. "You get to choose the president of the United States!" the girl replied.
And why not? As Florida's secretary of state, Harris repeatedly enforced deadlines that had the effect of excluding recounts likely to favor Al Gore. This was awkward, to say the least, in light of Harris's co-chairmanship of Bush's Florida campaign. Coupled with her lather of makeup and her strained on-camera smile, Harris offered Democrats a fine villain to symbolize their charges of a stolen election--"an amalgam of Kenneth Starr and Linda Tripp," as John Podhoretz wrote in The Weekly Standard. Democratic spokesman Chris Lehane called her "a Soviet commissar." Gore strategist Paul Begala said she was Cruella de Vil "coming to steal the puppies." Others likened her to Marilyn Manson, "Leona Helmsley on Halloween," a transvestite killer, and, in this magazine, Ozzy Osborne. Nothing was out of bounds. Bill Maher, then of ABC's "Politically Incorrect," even told a joke with this punch line: "And, for a few brief moments, America held the hope that O.J. Simpson had murdered Katherine Harris."
To be sure, conservatives flooded Harris's office with flower bouquets and marriage proposals, and many party activists still consider her a heroine. But Washington Republicans believe that Harris is an electoral kiss of death. "If Katherine Harris is the nominee, we lose," the Winston-Salem Journal quoted a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) as saying last fall. The spokesman later denied making the remark--but frosty comments about Harris from party leaders like Florida Governor Jeb Bush and NRSC Chair Elizabeth Dole echoed the sentiment. Even after Harris met with Bush last year and claimed his support, for instance, a spokesman would say only that Bush "wished her well in her campaign."
But Harris is impervious to the naysaying. A former prom queen and well-known socialite around Sarasota before her political career began, Harris likes to project can-do optimism. Rather than bristle when I ask her about the GOP's resistance to her candidacy, she professes to find the upside in it. "I understand there are people who don't want the word `recount' to surface," she says. "But it's a great part of the story. I've had people come up to me and say, `Gee whiz, you stood up to the big guys in D.C. That means you'll stand up for Florida!'"
Still, one senses that the GOP's treatment pains her. Last June, an unnamed Florida operative aligned with Harris told The Hill it was "a stab in the back" that the White House and the NRSC "would be so disloyal to Katherine Harris, especially after all she has done for the Bush family and the Republican Party." And it's not just her recount duties: Since coming to the House in 2002, Harris has been a reliable party-line vote for the GOP. Compounding the insult, Harris agreed not to run for Senate in 2004--with the implicit understanding that she would have White House support this time around.
No one could have predicted that Katherine Harris would wind up fighting a Washington Republican establishment that exists, in part, thanks to her. Not unlike George Bush, in fact, she had an aimless young adulthood and entered politics almost as an afterthought. Harris was born into an extremely wealthy Florida family--her grandfather, Ben Hill Griffin Jr., was a famous citrus and cattle baron and state politician. She was raised in privilege in central Florida, and she reminisces about gamboling around her grandfather's ranch on horseback. After graduating from a small Georgia women's college, she worked inconsequentially as a real-estate broker and a marketer for IBM, becoming best known for her role in Sarasota's moneyed establishment. A former art student, her family connections got her appointed to a local museum board, and, in Harris's own telling, she threw herself into politics after a boorish state legislator told her he considered Rubens to be a kind of sandwich. Harris won a tough campaign for state Senate in 1994 and became secretary of state in 1998--meaning she'd had less than six years of minor-league government experience when the course of history passed through her Tallahassee statehouse office in November 2000.
A passion for the arts, however, has always seemed an unlikely explanation for the determination--"a strange mixture of stubbornness and courage," as one former aide puts it--that powered Harris through the recount, into Congress, and now into a Senate race where she is not especially welcome. Another explanation can be found in Harris's 2002 book, Center of the Storm, which helps to show how an unfocused daughter of privilege became such an intensely driven political operator.
Overall, the book presents a woman intent on dispelling the implication that "I was not to be taken seriously because I was a spoiled rich kid." "She thinks she's the smartest person in the room," says another former aide. (Harris is a famously domineering boss, as evidenced by her revolving-door staff turnover.) Hence we get a name-dropping extravaganza, peppered with quotes from Samuel Johnson, Anton Chekhov, and Erasmus. (I even saw her bewilder a voter by saying, "You should read the `Communist Manifesto.' It's really interesting.") One finds a reference to "Rembrandt, Mary Cassatt, and Picasso," as well as a mention of "the variation between the architecture of Wren, Wright, and Pei." Harris also suggests parallels between her recount ordeal and the travails of Vaclav Havel, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Sojourner Truth, and Winston Churchill.
More tellingly, Harris writes about her "life-altering" 1979 encounter with the late evangelical leader Dr. Francis Schaeffer, who invited the young Harris to study at L'Abri, his Protestant ministry tucked into the Swiss Alps. While there, Harris writes, she became "enthralled" with Schaeffer's teachings. Harris, a Presbyterian, hints vaguely at Schaeffer's ideas--the effect of culture on the "social cancers attacking the soul of America." But she never quite spells out Schaeffer's James Dobson-esque views: denunciations of secular humanism and "the killing of human babies" and exhortations that the United States be returned to its "Judeo-Christian foundation" by any legal means possible. Harris displays in the book, as she did during interviews at the time of the recount, a revealing admiration for the biblical Queen Esther, who risked her life to save Jews from slaughter. Like Esther, Harris suggests, she may have been divinely chosen for her ordeals--just as Bush himself is often said to believe. Harris's book quotes the words spoken to Esther by her uncle, Mordecai: "And who knows but that you have come to royal position for a time such as this?" And that's not all. In 2002, Harris explained to the Tampa Tribune that she had originally expected the recount to end her political career. Instead, she said, she "stumbled into [her] own destiny." Running for office was a "spiritual" endeavor and a means of "fulfilling the role God has put [her] on this Earth to accomplish." Perhaps, then, this is the source of Harris's determination and of what Florida historian and Republican activist Allison DeFoor admiringly describes in Harris's eyes as "a look of almost spooky resolve."
CANDIDATES WITH A certain spooky resolve may be just what the GOP needs in 2006. It used to be that you didn't say no when Karl Rove asked you to run for Senate. Republicans say that's a big reason why they control the chamber today--as exemplified by the way Rove and George Bush talked a reluctant John Thune into taking on and defeating Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle in 2004. But, in a year so far defined by congressional scandals, the Iraq quagmire, and Bush's waning popularity, Rove has been striking out.
In West Virginia, Representative Shelley Moore Capito declined to make a run at 88-year-old Democratic Senator Robert C. Byrd, as did at least three others before the party finally settled on businessman John Raese. In September, Rove was rebuffed after flying to North Dakota to implore GOP Governor John Hoeven to challenge Democratic Senator Kent Conrad. Personal entreaties from Elizabeth Dole couldn't cajole the Republican governor of Vermont, Washington state's defeated 2004 gubernatorial nominee, nor several prominent Republicans in conservative Nebraska to jump in. A personal phone call from George Bush to Michigan Representative Candice Miller last winter was another bust. Worst of all, Republicans haven't found a credible opponent to run against Hillary Clinton this fall--if only to bloody her up before her likely 2008 presidential run. "I don't think there's a single state, except maybe Maryland, where they've gotten their first-choice candidate," gloats Phil Singer, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. (Democrats probably can't win the Senate outright, but believe they can trim the GOP's 55-45 majority to an almost-unmanageable margin.)
It was a similar story in Florida. Soon after Harris declared her candidacy, Dole and others publicly courted Florida House Speaker Allan Bense, Representative Mark Foley, former Army General Tommy Franks, and even the representative-turned-TV-host Joe Scarborough, but to no avail. Beyond the national dynamics that make such Republicans wary of risking their necks this fall was another daunting factor: Harris's beloved status among GOP partisans. "Katherine Harris is strong as battery acid in a primary," says Republican pollster Whit Ayres, "and enormously polarizing in the general."
By January, Republicans finally seemed resigned to Harris's candidacy. At a January 21 meeting of Republican activists, Jeb Bush said he would give her his "strong support," a public signal that the Stop Harris movement has ended. And, when he visited Florida last weekend, George Bush invited Harris to ride with him on Air Force One.
Still, there remains a degree of distance. Dole, who is rumored to personally dislike Harris, said in January only that "[s]he's a good candidate. She's a strong candidate. She's aggressively moving around the state and working hard raising funds. So we'll leave it there." And, when Harris flew to Florida with Bush, there was no photo-op. "They seem to be coming around a little bit, but I don't think they're going to do anything in a major way to help her," says one of the former aides.
In other words, the awkwardness isn't over--it has just begun. "She remains something of an embarrassment," says Ron Klain, former chief of staff to Al Gore and no Harris-lover. The Bushies "have been incredibly good about helping people who helped them in Florida. But she became the face of a part of this that was not part of the success story for Bush." Indeed, the GOP's preferred Bush creation myth really begins on September 11, when a great man's life intersected with world history. It's a far better story than the one about the butterfly ballot, the "Brooks Brothers riot," and a presidency claimed by a disputed 537-vote margin.
But there will be no escaping all that now. That much becomes clear, again, when Harris meets with voters at a community center in the Gulf Coast beach town of Navarre. She has just finished a tedious discussion of the trade deficit when a deep-voiced alpha male at the back of the room seizes the floor. "Let me tell you, folks, when the Democrats tried to intimidate her and make fun of her, and when Warren Christopher tried to take her on, she turned Warren Christopher into dogmeat! And I mean chewed-up dogmeat!" he says. Then he waves a donation check in the air, and the room bursts into applause. The man turns out to be a conservative talk-radio host named Kenneth Lamb. "The more she brings up that 2000 stuff," Lamb tells me confidently, "the more votes she's gonna get!" Karl Rove obviously feels differently. But it doesn't matter to Harris. She is on a mission--and there's no stopping her now.
This article originally ran in the March 6, 2006, issue of the magazine.