Is Marco Rubio the new Katherine Harris?

Charlie Crist is hoping so…

By Jamie Miller

A standing ovation.

The speaker leaves the podium to much adulation and the audience mobs the candidate for pictures, handshakes and words of encouragement.  The candidate is taken aback by how long it takes to get on the road to the next appointment.

This could describe a campaign event for Marco Rubio or Katherine Harris.  Conservatives have seen this story played out.  No it isn’t a thriller or a comedy but a tragedy in the making.  A bright, young politician takes on the “the establishment” for the future of the party only to have voters make the determination.

During the past few weeks, I have had several people ask me, “Why do so many conservatives believe Marco Rubio can beat Gov. Charlie Crist for the nomination for the U.S. Senate, but you still think the nominee will be Crist?” 

My reply is: I’ve lived through the Marco Rubio campaign when I managed Katherine Harris’ campaign for U.S. Senate.  I can appreciate what they’re going through.  The ups of having so many grassroots leaders supporting the campaign, the downs of being on the short end of the fundraising race, quarter after quarter. 

The similarities are too great to ignore.

The first and most obvious similarity is not only the lack of fundraising but the similar “burn” rates for both Rubio and Harris.  Rubio has been out-raised by Gov. Crist by about four to one, but the governor holds more than a six to one cash-on-hand advantage. 

The reason is simple; Rubio is burning through 44 percent of his cash because he is raising more money through the mail which is one of the costliest ways to raise campaign dollars.  It is true that many of these donors will be able to repeat their donations several times during the year, but this burn rate is too high for a successful statewide campaign.  On the other hand, Crist’s “burn” rate is less than 10 percent.

Of course there are similarities between Rubio and Harris’ grassroots support, their speaking ability and their natural gift of charging up a crowd.  They are both dynamic speakers who will travel anywhere to give a speech to any size crowd.  I still enjoy watching either of these gifted speakers at events.  It’s fun to watch the crowd respond.  But, good speeches don’t necessarily translate to good or successful campaigns.

Rubio’s campaign faces a primary challenger in the sitting governor from the same party while Harris’ campaign faced the incumbent U.S. Senator from the opposing party.  Rubio is trying to defeat a more experienced candidate who has won major statewide races much like Harris’ opponent in 2006.  Harris had the advantage of being elected statewide in a minor cabinet race while Rubio’s only major statewide experience has been as Speaker of the Florida House, an election with about 80 voters (other House members of the same party).

Finally, one of the similarities between Rubio and Harris is that neither had ever faced the sting of defeat until they ran for the U.S. Senate.  I think this alone gives them loftier expectations from themselves and their campaigns than can be realized in a race of this size.

I always tell my clients that I want them to be successful in three areas regardless of whether they win or lose a race – personal, professional and political.  A failed political campaign of this magnitude can have a devastating effect in all three areas of one’s life.

What Rubio fails to realize with his lack of fundraising and his burn rate is that he simply isn’t going to have the “voter contact” dollars available to him to be successful in a top-of-the-ticket federal race. 

Most political watchers would agree that by the time the August primary rolls around, Rubio will have about $4-5 million to spend on the campaign (I think this is probably a high) versus Gov. Crist’s $12 million (which is a conservative guess).  Rubio then has to make a couple of choices, does he spend it all on negative TV to take Crist out, does he spend it all on positive TV to prepare himself for the general, or does he spend $3 million on positive and $2 million on negative.  My guess is that, like most candidates, he splits it.  That will give Crist the opportunity to spend $6 million in positive TV to offset the $2 million spent against him in negatives and another $6 million to spend on negative TV against Rubio.  So, at the end of the election, Crist will have Rubio covered.  For every negative TV commercial you see of Crist, you will see three positive.  For every positive commercial you see of Rubio, you will see two negative.

Rubio is on a collision course with a failed political campaign.

My advice for Rubio would be much the same as it was for Harris in the spring of 2006, “leave this race while you still have your popularity and can turn it into something you can build on for many years to come.”  Katherine didn’t heed that advice, I left her campaign and she is not currently involved in politics (although, she could still sell out a GOP Lincoln Day Dinner every day of the week if she went on the speaking circuit).  I suggested, as did many others, that she should take her popularity and pitch her experience as a political commentator on one of the cable news channels.  Rubio would build a huge following if he followed this advice.

Since Rubio has never felt the sting of defeat, it is unlikely he will heed this advice either because he doesn’t realize how hard it will be to rehabilitate his political image after that much money is spent clarifying his position without having a similar amount of money to respond.

We’ve all seen this play.  It’s amazing to me that because there is a different antagonist, people expect a different ending.

Jamie Miller is a political consultant, a former campaign manager for Katherine Harris’ U.S. Senate race, and a former executive director for the Republican Party of Florida.  E-mail him at:

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10 thoughts on “Is Marco Rubio the new Katherine Harris?”

  1. Mr. Miller’s experience far exceeds my own, but my limited experience tells me money is not always the deciding factor, and there are many other factors in play.


  2. Jamie, I think your concern about Rubio’s burn rate is right on and he has to find a way to slow that pace and POSSIBLY use Charlie’s establishment candidate status against him. KH had something that Rubio doesn’t, and that is extremely high negatives even somewhat within her own party (3 no name shoe-string campaigns combined for half the primary… Read More vote), I’m not close to this race but I don’t think Rubio is anywhere near 50% negatives. Having lived in Crist’s home of Pinellas Co and still connected to the area I’ve been SHOCKED at the Crist lovers who have turned on him. There is something nationally happening with the republican party right now and people are sick and tired of liberal republican candidates (see NY-23), Rubio needs to catch that fire, which many national pundits are now noticing as this race is frequently being talked about. I recall sitting with you at International Plaza shortly before you left Harris and hearing your feelings about how you were concerned KH was hurting herself and may not be able to recover. It seems you have those same concerns for Rubio, and you are drawing this comparison. But I feel a more accurate comparison would be to Reagan challenging President Ford Even though he suffered a tough and bitter primary loss in 76 he was able to set the groundwork become president 4 years later and reshape the republican party.


  3. JKByers21 – I think it’s wrong to compare a top-of-the-ticket U.S. Senate race in Florida to an off-year special election in New York. They are apples and oranges. History may show that your analogy of Reagan/Ford is more accurate than mine about Crist/Rubio. But, for your analogy to be correct, Rubio still loses this race against Crist, and then could face another well-financed candidate in 2012.

    Katherine’s problems were more numerous to share here, but one of the problems with her campaign is that she refused to use much needed dollars to “clarify the opposition.” Bill Nelson hasn’t had much of an approval rating higher than 49 percent since he has taken office. She wanted and received a campaign that was 100 percent about her. That was never going to be her path to victory.


  4. Comment by e-mail from Nancy, Jacksonville

    “When principle is at stake, be deaf to expediency”

    Dear Jamie:

    The Marco Rubio and Katherine Harris comparison is ridiculous! Not worth expounding
    on but……here are some thoughts:

    Your flawed “analysis” was to malign Marco and attempt to discredit his candidacy. It won’t stick.

    What’s transparent in this race is that candidate Marco Rubio is genuine and his opponent is aspiring; voters can see that. Marco has a set of core principles and adhere’s to them.
    He’s got 8 years legislative experience, he’s focused, composed, an extremely intelligent lawyer ( it didn’t take 3 attempts to pass the bar) & more importantly, has a vision to lead our country. Marco has a command of the facts at his fingertips; unlike Katherine Harris or the governor. ( We can’t wait til they have a debate, grab some popcorn and a coke Jamie!).

    What Republicans like you don’t understand is this, Marco Rubio is running for a Cause bigger than himself. And for political opportunists, whether they’re candidates or paid consultants, they don’t get it. The FL grassroots are rallying behind Marco, and the grassroots he enjoys are larger in number and more diverse than those who supported Katherine Harris’ candidacy. (And Marco can make his case in Spanish too!)

    This state is suffering from almost 12% unemployment; meanwhile the Republican governor goes out front and embraces Pres. Obama in support for a Federal bailout. Now he’s gallivanting around the country leaving the E.O.G. unattended and not addressing the serious problems we’re facing. For Crist, as Katherine was accused of, the make-up is coming off.

    You said:”Rubio is on a collision course with a failed political campaign.” But in fact you are the one who was on a failed political campaign. Perhaps you are having a interior Freudian moment.

    Most of us looked at Katherine and knew she should not run, she wound never make it out of the gate. Incumbent Bill Nelson needed a stronger Republican male opponent, probably one with a military resume. Nelson had been in FL politics since he was a Page at 15 years of age in D.C., and had broad bi-partisan support in the state. The numbers were never there for Katherine Harris beating Bill Nelson. Unlike Marco Rubio, who not only beats Kendrick Meek handily, but he beats him by a larger margin (15) than the governor (12) according to the latest Rasmussen poll done a few days ago,

    see here:

    Marco’s campaign may have less cash on hand (though you didn’t mention over 2 million of the governor’s is for the General not the Primary) but what is similar of Crist’s campaign to Katherine’s is that Crist’s campaign image is imploding and making national headlines just like hers did. Marco is not doing that, it’s Crist’s lack of principled convictions and disingenuousness public statements which are catching up with him.

    see here in the Washington Examiner today:

    The race is exciting, in every poll taken beginning this past spring Rubio’s numbers continue to go up and the governor’s go down. The governor may be a sunny optimist but these times are serious and he’s more form than substance.

    Next August 24th, Gov. Charlie Crist may well be congratulating a dynamic young senator from Miami. The telegenic Marco Rubio; a man willing to make the sacrifices necessary to defend something bigger than himself.



  5. Jamie’s analysis is spot on – and I’d take it a step further. The person who really has to be worried about Marco Rubio is Bill McCollum.

    Charlie is not going to hesitate to spend whatever it takes to annihilate Rubio. And while Kendrick Meek isn’t that formidable an opponent, Charlie isn’t going to be overly generous in the general election if he’s had to spend a lot of his money in the primary.

    So funds that would have been available to help McCollum are going to go to Charlie. Meanwhile, Alex Sink is sitting on a pot of money twice the size of McCollum’s.

    Republicans aren’t going to lose Florida’s Senate seat. They could well lose the governor’s mansion.


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