Who Will Follow Katherine Harris?

The worries of national Republican leaders from courthouse to White House notwithstanding, two-term Rep. Katherine Harris is now fully committed to running against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson next year. In her 13th District (Sarasota), the big political question is who will win the Republican primary next September and be positioned to succeed the controversial former Florida secretary of state in Congress.

By most accounts, the front-runner right now is Tramm Hudson, banker and former Republican chairman of Sarasota County, which includes about 55% of the district’s registered Republicans. Local and national pundits often point out that, as past chairman of the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce and both a Bush Pioneer ($100,000 fundraiser for George W. Bush) and county finance chairman for Gov. Jeb Bush, the 53-year-old Hudson has gilt-edged connections in business and civic circles. Few question whether the Vanderbilt University graduate will be able to raise the $1.5 million it is estimated a winning primary candidate needs.

But Hudson’s support among area conservatives is also considered a key ingredient in his front-runner status. Among those who have already weighed in for him are the last two Republican U.S. House members from the district, Dan Miller (1992-2002) and Andy Ireland (1976-92), and former Florida House Republican Leader James M. Lombard. In addition, as with many veterans seeking office since 9/11, one-time U.S. Army Cavalry officer and Florida National Guard company commander Hudson’s military background and widespread contacts in the area’s veterans community are considered major assets.

Hudson’s leading primary rival is multi-millionaire car dealer Vern Buchanan, who “will be the richest member of the House” if elected, according to Hastings Wyman’s Southern Political Report. Well-known as the TV pitchman for his automobile dealerships, Buchanan is himself a past president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce and finance chairman for the winning campaign of Sen. Mel Martinez (R.-Fla.) last year.

While there are some similarities between Buchanan and Hudson, the car dealer-candidate has had a problem in attempting to win over conservatives. It’s not so much that he does not take conservative positions, but many of his issue statements so far have seemed vague to many locals. According to Sarasota Manatee Business Magazine (November 2005), Buchanan said in reply to a query about Medicare: “I haven’t spent a ton of time on it.” As for the President’s proposed guest-worker program for immigrants, Sarasota quotes Buchanan as saying:  “I’m looking at it right now.” In contrast, Hudson told me that he had reservations about the multi-billion-dollar prescription drug/Medicare package the administration helped strong-arm through the House in ’03 and is opposed to a guest-worker program.

The other GOP hopefuls are State Rep. Nancy Detert of Venice, a Democrat-turned-Republican, and State Rep. Donna Clarke, whose pro-abortion stance, according to Hastings Wyman, “sets her apart from the other GOP contenders.”

Harris was held to 54% and 53% of the vote in her two winning House races. Wealthy banker Christine Jennings, the ’04 Democratic candidate, is expected to carry her party’s standard again in ’06. But without the lightning rod that Harris provided to Democrats for her role in delivering Florida’s pivotal electoral votes to George W. Bush in 2000, Jennings is actually more of an underdog against a non-incumbent Republican nominee.