Democrats are hoping to swing several tightly contested congressional races by seizing on controversial comments made by Rep. Katherine Harris, best known for her role during the 2000 recount in Florida.
Harris, who as Florida’s secretary of state was hailed by conservatives and reviled by liberals for her efforts to certify then-Texas Governor George W. Bush as the winner, told the Florida Baptist Witness last week that “if you’re not electing Christians, then in essence you are going to legislate sin.” According to the published transcript of the interview, Harris, who is battling to win Florida’s GOP nomination for Senate, went on to call the separation of church and state in America “a lie,” warning that if irreligious men and women were elected “we’re going to have a nation of secular laws.”
Even if she wins the September 5 GOP primary, Harris — who told the Baptist publication that she has “no question” that she will spend “eternity with God” — is a long-shot to defeat incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson in the November general election. But Democratic strategists and politicians are focusing on her campaign, in the hopes of using her comments to hurt other Republican candidates among moderate Republican and independent voters.
“We’ll work to share her views with all voters in Florida, not just Jewish ones,” Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat who is spearheading the Jewish outreach efforts of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Where were the Florida Republican politicians, Israel asked, “when Katherine Harris stated that there should be religious tests to hold public office?”
The National Jewish Democratic Council put forth a similar argument in its press release targeting Rep. Clay Shaw, Jr., a Republican incumbent who is in a tight race against Ron Klein, a Democratic member of the Florida state Senate. The press release called on Shaw to condemn Harris’s remarks.
In an interview with the Forward, the council’s executive director, Ira Forman, said: “Clay Shaw has one of the largest Jewish populations in Florida. The most important thing is for Clay Shaw to stand up and say that his candidate for the Senate is totally off-base. What’s more important, principles or the party?”
Shaw did not return calls seeking comment. Neither did spokesmen at the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Republican National Committee.
The Orlando Sentinel reported August 27 that Jillian Hasner, an executive director of the Florida chapter of the RJC, described Harris’s comments as not “representative of the Republican party at all.” Other Republicans have also begun to distance themselves from Harris.
The Harris campaign issued an August 26 “statement of clarification” saying that the Florida Republican was “addressing a common misperception that people of faith should not be actively involved in government.” The statement also noted her support for several pro-Israel congressional measures and offered words of support from her Jewish campaign manager, Bryan Rudnick.
“I joined this campaign because Congresswoman Harris is a passionate supporter of Israel, the Jewish people and always has the best interests of all Floridians at heart,” Rudnick said. “As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, I know that she encourages people of all faiths to engage in government so that our country can continue to thrive on the principles set forth by our Founding Fathers, without malice towards anyone.”
Will McBride, Harris’s most significant threat in the September 5 primary, as well as Harris’s two other Republican opponents, Peter Monroe and LeRoy Collins, have all managed to get their names in various Florida papers criticizing Harris remarks. Monroe reportedly described them as “warped, twisted and disgraceful.”
A recent poll, conducted by the St. Petersburg Times and reported on August 12, showed Harris with a sizable lead over her Republican challengers. But those numbers might not mean much after her most recent P.R. blunder, observers said.
In the August 12 poll, 28% of likely Republican voters said they would support Harris at the polls. McBride trailed behind, with 11%.
With Nelson holding a commanding lead over Harris in a hypothetical November match-up, Democrats are more focused on making her remarks an issue in other races.
“I think it’s cumulative,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democratic lawmaker from South Florida. “Comments like these are against the moderate mainstream. They show that Republicans are strangled by the right-wing.”
Israel also predicted that the comments could hurt the GOP’s wider campaign efforts.
“Republicans will say [Harris’s comments] are just a drop in the bucket,” Israel said. “But the bucket is overflowing.”
When asked if he would make future efforts to publicize Harris’s remarks, Israel said: “You bet.”