Joe Conason's Journal

Katherine Harris gets some bad ink back home. Plus: Two GOP candidates in tough races are "disendorsed" by their hometown papers.

By Salon Staff

Published October 22, 2002 1:39PM (EDT)

The Unlucky 13th
There are occasions when a newspaper drops a politician and endorses his or her opponent, as the dailies in Denver and Harrisburg did last Sunday (see below), with the hope of electing someone better. And there are other times when a politician the paper has previously endorsed is almost certain to win, but is simply no longer tolerable and cannot be endorsed in good conscience. That was the situation faced by the editors of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune when they considered their endorsement for Congress last Sunday.

Katherine Harris -- yes, that one -- is considered the likely victor in her state's unlucky 13th Congressional District, despite a valiant effort by her inexperienced Democratic opponent Jan Schneider.

But whatever may happen, the Herald-Tribune editors have at last grown weary of the woman who gave us Florida 2000:

"As we stated before the primaries, the Herald-Tribune recommended Harris four times for election to public office. The recommendations were made with reservations, sometimes with trepidation, but always in the hope that experience would help Harris harness her extraordinary energy, bring clarity to her views and teach her to avoid those embarrassing blunders. "That hope vanished as the mistakes and misjudgments that plagued Harris' years in public office continued right through her confounding resignation as secretary of state. Nothing has occurred in the general election campaign to suggest that anything will change for the better: In fact, Harris' excessive pursuit of campaign contributions from throughout the country and her decisions to invite two far-right Republican congressmen to campaign on her behalf in a moderate district suggest that she's already distracted by the prospect of running for yet another higher office."

They recommend a vote for Schneider, evidently feeling that they bear some responsibility for Harris and that she should be stopped, if possible, now.

When editors (or publishers) change their minds
Judging the candidates in dozens of competitive races would be difficult even for a reporter who traveled across the country this election season. Some of the candidates I've observed for years, while others are much less familiar. Unable to go everywhere, I rely on newspapers, broadcasts, friends, correspondents and readers in distant places to understand local issues and personalities. And the bias of all those sources isn't always easy to discern. But I've found that one of the most meaningful indicators in a political contest is when a newspaper dumps a candidate it has formerly endorsed.

That happened last Sunday in two of the nation's most competitive (and bitter) contests, where a newspaper editorial could influence the remaining undecided voters. In Colorado, the Denver Post, which backed Sen. Wayne Allard six years ago, urged its readers to vote this year for Democrat Tom Strickland. And in Pennsylvania, the Harrisburg Patriot-News -- a paper that has supported Republican Rep. George Gekas for two decades or more -- gently suggested that the time has come for his replacement by Rep. Tim Holden, a Democrat forced into a race against Gekas by redistricting.

There was something touching in the Harrisburg paper's disendorsement of Gekas, which describes him as "our hometown boy." It gently criticizes the 72-year-old conservative -- a likable man with great empathy for his constitutents -- as "a foot soldier for his party" whose 20 years in Congress "have not produced a record of great distinction or a position in the congressional hierarchy commensurate with his tenure." That Gekas is past his prime became clear when editors asked him to name his most important achievements, and the congressman "had to pause for some time before citing legislation of mostly narrow application." (He is best known outside Pennsylvania for his somewhat befuddled performance as one of the House impeachment managers.)

The paper's editors praised Holden's courage in voting for the 1993 tax increase, which passed by one vote and led to the defeat of many Democrats the following year. "He is being pummeled for that vote now by those desperate to ensure his defeat, but the tax increase made it possible for the country to end its deficit spending. That led to a brief few years of fiscal sanity in Washington that lately is being squandered."

They also pass judgment on the key national issues in the race: "Holden supports a prescription-drug benefit for seniors that sensibly would be part of the existing Medicare program, not a privately run operation that Gekas and the drug companies want. Holden supports strengthening the existing Social Security system, not privatizing it, as Gekas favored until recently."

More surprising, perhaps, is the Post's rejection of Allard in favor of Strickland, who represents "Colorado's central values -- moderation, a commitment to progress and reverence for our natural surroundings." Describing Allard graciously as "a true gentleman," the Denver daily holds him accountable for failing to heed their admonition in their 1996 endorsement to "seek compromise and moderation." As a party-line Republican "clinging too slavishly to conservative ideology," Allard has left his erstwhile supporters at the Post "deeply disappointed."

It didn't have to be that way, as the editors lament: "Traditionally, The Post has continued to stand by incumbents we have supported in the past. Our endorsement is, quite frankly, theirs to lose. To our sorrow, Sen. Allard, by failing to show any instinct for centrism, conciliation or independence, has lost our support. Allard has followed a conservative party line, voting against strengthening federal laws on air and water pollution and accumulating the worst environmental record of any Colorado senator in memory." Strategically placed in TV and radio ads, that last sentence may be enough to finish him. [7:50 a.m. PDT, Oct. 22, 2002]

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