17 June 2005

Johnnie Byrd, Part II?

The GOP's romance with Katherine Harris is about to have an ugly breakup. Word on the street is that national and state Republicans are recruiting a former Democrat to challenge Congresswoman Harris in the GOP primary for United States Senate. Florida Democrats should be licking their chops. They need a break if U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-Florida) is going to retain his seat, and this may be it.

According to news reports, Governor Jeb Bush and state Republicans lack confidence in Harris' ability to defeat Nelson and are encouraging current House Speaker Allan Bense (R-Panama City) to run against Nelson. The White House claims that President George W. Bush is not involved in the GOP's intrastate conflict. Republicans should be wary and remember the last time the head of the Florida House ran for the U.S. Senate.

In 2004, former Speaker Johnnie Byrd finished an embarrassing fourth place in the GOP primary after members of his own party joined Democrats and turned against him for the strong-armed tactics he used during the legislative session. Governor Bush assured reporters that Bense would not become a Byrd for Senate, Part II, but how can he be so sure? With a statewide candidate heading the Florida House, everyone can pretend that there is no conflict of interest, but Bense will obviously be the elephant in the room. (No pun intended.)

Following a particularly bad session, most notably the Senate and House's inability to pass implementing legislation for slots at parimutuels, a Bense run for Senate would clearly be stumbling out of the gate. (OK - I intended that pun.) The Republican Legislature held its annual train wreck this past May, but this year was worse than year's past. Most bills that were important to the people of Florida were left undone as the two chambers engaged in petty disagreements and unsuccessful horse trading in the state capitol. Bense will not be able to escape the criticism that he was unable to successfully negotiate with other state legislative leaders. Ironically, Bense's nemisis in the past session, Senate President Tom Lee (R-Brandon) has also be encouraged to run against Harris in the GOP senatorial primary.

Regardless of what happens, Democrats should be pleased. In a time when they rarely have much to smile about, Florida Democrats should be encouraged by the type of infighting within the GOP that has plagued their own pary for years. (Is it just me, or is this starting to feel like Reno vs. McBride in 2002?) Still, Senator Nelson is a weak general election candidate, so planning a victory party should not be a high priority right now. Nevertheless, it is rare to see the GOP misstep. Democrats had a good day.