Friday, March 17, 2006

Harris stays in Fla. Senate race

Several bloggers -- including blog buddy Rob Huddleston and his Tennessee friend Brian Hornback -- have commented on Rep. Katherine Harris' announcement that she will remain in the Senate race in Florida.

A few years ago, my wife and I met Mrs. Harris at the D.C. premiere of "Gods and Generals." My wife really liked Mrs. Harris. She was very down-to-earth and friendly. Unlike some Congress-critters who never go anywhere without their entourage (remind me to tell my Dick Gephardt story sometime), Mrs. Harris was just this little lady standing in the lobby of the theater during intermission. I say "little" because she is very petite -- about 5 feet tall and certainly not more than 100 pounds.

During the 2000 Florida recount nightmare, the liberal media demonized Mrs. Harris. I particularly recall a nasty Robin Givhan profile in the OP (Other Paper) that lampooned Mrs. Harris' cosmetic choices. Typical liberal hypocrisy -- anybody who says a word about the appearance of certain left-wing Democratic women is a heartless sexist pig, but GOP women are always fair game. And it's not like Katherine Harris is unattractive. She just happened to be wearing blue eye shadow the day of her big media event and, to the snobby bitches in the D.C. press corps, blue eye shadow is some kind of low-class thing.

The problems affecting Mrs. Harris' campaign are typical of something Lynn and I observed in researching DONKEY CONS. When a Democratic politician is at the center of controversy, Democrats rally around and staunchly defend their own. (Think of congressional Democrats applauding Clinton at that 1998 White House photo-op the day the House impeached him.) But Republicans -- and here I especially mean the party leaders, big campaign donors and major conservative pundits who influence GOP decision-making -- are very gun-shy about controversy.

There is a good side of this: You don't see anybody in the GOP claiming that Jack Abramoff or Duke Cunningham were the targets of a "partisan witch-hunt." One reason Republicans have less scandal is because all Republican scandals tend to end in three words: Resigned in disgrace. But there's also a bad side of this aversion to controversy, and Mrs. Harris is experiencing it with her Senate race.

First: Republicans are a middle-class, business-oriented party. Thus, Republicans expect their candidates to be "presentable" in the same way as an IBM executive -- the ideal GOP candidate is outgoing and friendly, but also bland, boring and harmless. Democrats like dangerous "bad boy" candidates like Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy. Democrats will make heroes of clowns and demagogues, so long as those clowns and demagogues win elections. But the Republican power and money crowd is always uncomfortable about "colorful" candidates: Bob Dornan, for example. When Dornan lost his House seat to Loretta Sanchez in 1996 -- a close election in which Dornan's supporters said the Democrats cheated -- he seemed genuinely hurt that the GOP didn't jump in to back his challenge to the result. You got the feeling, however, that the grand poobahs of the Republican Party were a bit embarassed to be associated with "B-1 Bob," and they sort of walked away from him after that election.

Sometimes this tendency goes so far that Republicans will actively oppose "controversial" Republicans in the general election. Ask Oliver North about how many people in the GOP fought against him in his 1994 Virginia Senate campaign. Judge Roy Moore in Alabama has experienced the same thing -- Moore has strong grassroots support and statewide name recognition, but the Republican establishment just hates Moore because they consider him a bad stereotype of the Religious Right.

That points to a second factor that's hurting Mrs. Harris in Florida: Republicans have internalized the self-image created by their opponents. By this, I mean that GOP people are always afraid of acting like what Democrats say they are: rich, greedy, warmongers, racists, sexists, homophobes, etc. That's what leads the GOP to do silly stunts like the notorious "diversity night" at the 2000 Republican convention. And this relates to Mrs. Harris because she comes from a wealthy family -- her grandfather was a cattle baron -- and she has the kind of society pedigree that some Republicans find embarassing. Republicans know they're seen as "the party of the rich," and so they're always a bit uneasy with a candidate with inherited wealth like Mrs. Harris or, to cite another example, Steve Forbes.

This is one reason why Reagan -- once he beat the GOP establishment's concern that he was "too extreme" -- was always so good for Republicans. Reagan came from a rather modest Midwest background and became successful through his own talent and hard work. That biographical narrative not only embodied the basic GOP message of economic opportunity, it also countered the image of Republicans as the "born rich" party.

A big reason some Republicans don't like Mrs. Harris as a Senate candidate, I think, is that they fear she plays into that "born rich" stereotype. The GOP loves Old Money campaign contributors, but they don't like to put Old Money names on the ballot. So when Mrs. Harris says she'll put $10 million of her own money into her campaign, that hurts her in some Republicans' eyes.

I haven't followed the Florida election closely and don't know what the issues are. I don't know what Mrs. Harris' stances are on various issues, and certainly don't mean this post as an endorsement. But her situation does illustrate some of the different tendencies of the two parties that we talked about in DONKEY CONS. And these tendencies may do a lot to explain why some people have such negative view of Mrs. Harris.


DONKEY CONS: About the book