Wasserman Schultz faces determined opponent

Two years ago, Republican Karen Harrington lost to Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz by 22 percentage points in a liberal South Florida district.

This time around, Harrington hopes to win because of her campaigning experience, a slightly less liberal district and Wasserman Schultz’s role as head of the Democratic National Committee.

It remains a hard political hill to climb for Harrington. Political pundits say Wasserman Schultz should coast to another victory.

Harrington has benefitted from the high-profile of Wasserman Schultz. She had raised about $1.3 million through September — about triple her $380,000 haul in 2010. Yet, Wasserman Schultz has a bigger campaign bank account. She raised about $3.4 million.

The newly drawn 23rd Congressional District — Wasserman Schultz is currently in the 20th — remains mostly Democratic. About 47 percent are registered Democrats while the remainder are split between Republicans and independents, according to July state election data.

During the 2010 gubernatorial race, 61 percent of voters in the district went for Democrat Alex Sink. In 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain got 38 percent. The district includes much of Broward County south of Interstate 595 and some of coastal Miami-Dade, including Miami Beach.

Wasserman Schultz has been a fierce candidate on the campaign trail. After emerging victorious in a six-way primary for state House in 1992, she won her first office at the age of 26. She has pummeled opponents since first gaining a seat in Congress in 2004, winning by double-digit margins.

Some past GOP candidates who hoped to unseat her were such an embarrassment that even many Republican activists steered clear of them. In 2004, a challenger criticized Wasserman Schultz for using a peach crayon to write at a forum and said she was “frazzled.” (The implication was that she had too much on her plate as a mom and politician.) This year, one of the GOP primary rivals was lampooned on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.

Asked to compare herself to her opponent, Wasserman Schultz told the Miami Herald: “I’m not really focused on my opponent. I’m making sure I am running the same door-to-door neighborhood campaign. I always have focused on creating jobs, getting the economy turned around” and protecting Medicare and Social Security.

Wasserman Schultz has drawn attention to her battle with breast cancer, close friendship with former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords who survived a mass shooting in Tucson and battles with tea party sensation U.S. Rep. Allen West, R-Palm Beach Gardens. He now represents a neighboring district and has called her “vile.”

Being a Barack Obama surrogate has subjected Wasserman Schultz to intense national media scrutiny about her style and misstatements — including her claim the week of the Democratic convention that she didn’t say that the Israeli ambassador said "what the Republicans are doing is dangerous for Israel." Audio showed she did say that and her claim led to her first (and only, as of mid-October) Pants on Fire ruling by PolitiFact, the fact-checking arm of the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times.

An e-book by POLITCO claimed that the Obama campaign questioned Wasserman Schultz’s effectiveness — she said it “had about the same credibility as a National Enquirer story.”

For her part, Harrington has earned the respect of GOP heavyweights, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, former Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. She also got a nod from the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Young Guns program.

Harrington has focused on Wasserman Schultz’s ties to Obama and points to her national role as causing her to pay less attention to her district. She accused her opponent of missing "62 congressional votes — one of the worst records of a member of Congress" last year. PolitiFact rated that claim Half True — she did miss 62 votes, placing her in 45th place.

In left-leaning cities from Miami Beach to Pembroke Pines, the fact that Wasserman Schultz goes on national TV to fight back against Republicans makes her popular with her base.

Any missteps as DNC chair are not the type that would cost her Democrats’ votes, said David Wasserman (no relation), House editor of the influential Washington, D.C.-based Cook Political Report, which analyzes congressional races.

“They are the kind of missteps that might further alienate Republicans,” said Wasserman, who puts the race solidly in the Democrats’ favor.

Harrington points to the fact that the number of registered Republicans and independents outnumber the Democrats. But Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, says the race is not competitive and that Harrington would need a wave election in favor of Republicans for those numbers to work in her favor.

“In wave elections, we see independents breaking disproportionally for one party or another,” he said. “But I think this year it will be a lot closer and independents will be more evenly divided.”

Not helping Harrington is that she hasn’t gotten the chance to debate Wasserman Schultz. She says she asked for a debate with the incumbent Democrat but she didn’t respond.

Wasserman Schultz’s campaign schedule is mostly composed of appearances in front of largely friendly audiences that include meet and greets with voters in Miami Beach neighborhoods, Democratic clubs in Broward and other gatherings.

Harrington describes Wasserman Schultz as “an entrenched career politician” who supports a “liberal agenda.” She emphasizes her real world experience as an owner of local restaurants — her family owns Rickey’s Sports Bar and Grill — and argues that the private sector will lead our way to an improved economy. Harrington supports less government regulation, lower taxes and repealing Obamacare.

Harrington has run a very different campaign from a Republican running in a neighboring left-leaning district: Adam Hasner in the Broward/Palm Beach 22nd Congressional District. While Hasner has tried to portray himself as a moderate consensus builder — one of his ads set to soft piano music doesn’t even mention he is a Republican — Harrington hasn’t shied away from a conservative platform and lists specifics about her pro-life stances on her website.

Harrington says this election is about the economy, jobs and healthcare but she isn’t hiding her views.

“I don’t think you should try to make yourself something you are not...,” Harrington said. “Honesty is what people are looking for. Ask me a question and I’m going to answer it.”

Erika Bolstad of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this article.