Meet Karen Harrington, the Republican challenger who, in 2010, nearly beat Debbie Wasserman Schultz in a 2:1 Democratic district. Accustomed to comfortable margins of victory, Wasserman Schultz was surprised a year ago when Harrington pulled in nearly 40 percent of the vote. Debbie Downer is liable to be still more surprised in 2012 because Harrington has mounted a second campaign against the Democratic National Committee Chairwoman — and she’s ready to do definitively what she nearly did last time.
“We are more than sure we can win,” Harrington said yesterday in a private conversation at BlogCon2011.
When Harrington treks door to door through Florida’s 20th district, her potential constituents often ask two things: (1) Is she a politician? and (2) Is she a lawyer? Harrington is neither. Voters are happy to hear it. They’re even happier to hear what she is: a small-business owner, wife and mother of three children. She also happens to be a three-time cancer survivor — but that crops up in conversation only if an adroit question elicits it.
She’s lived in South Florida ever since her parents moved to the Sunshine State from Massachusetts in 1969 — and her family and she have been in business for themselves for almost as long — 37 years. Today, at the helm of three homestyle restaurants, she and her younger sister employ about 100 people. That means she knows firsthand how government helps or hinders the efforts of job creators.
Like so many conservatives, she grew concerned about the direction the country was headed after the 2008 elections — and, when she looked at her own Congresswoman, she saw a person who didn’t reflect her principles of hard work, free enterprise and a focus on family. So she searched for someone who might be able to successfully challenge DWS — and found that person in herself. She didn’t necessarily want to run — but she also didn’t want to have to tell her children someday that she could have done something to stem the growth of government and restore freedom to individuals and didn’t.
Competitive by nature, she invested herself completely in the 2010 race — and was strongly backed by her family. A week before the election, she was disappointed that she had to miss one of her then-13-year-old son’s baseball tournaments. As she took him to the airport, she apologized to him for it. Her son answered: “Mom, just beat her.”
That sentiment among her family — and in Harrington herself — remains unchanged. She’s undaunted by the outsized personality Wasserman Schultz brings to any race she enters.
“Debbie’s an unusual character,” Harrington says, “[but] I just have to be myself. I think that will resonate with voters. Most of all, Americans want the real thing. They’re looking for that honest, good American who’s not afraid to stand up to government or [her] own party.”
“Honest” isn’t necessarily the first adjective that comes to mind to describe Wasserman Schultz, who frequently unfoundedly maligns her political opponents. She’s been known to say, for example, that Republicans are anti-women. Harrington is living proof that the GOP is anything but.
Harrington also happens to have a warm relationship with Rep. Allen West, who notoriously called Debbie Wasserman Schultz “not a lady.” In contrast to his strong censure of DWS, West has expressed his eagerness to “lock shields and hold swords” with Harrington in the fight against big government. Harrington also snagged Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s former campaign manager to aid in her election effort.
Even with the backing of family, rising GOP stars and a solid base of supporters, though, Harrington hasn’t taken a bit of the campaign for granted, devoting long hours to the effort. As a restaurant owner, she’s used to working days, nights, weekends, holidays, whatever. She doesn’t drink coffee — she’s a true Southerner in that iced tea is her caffeinated beverage of choice — but she stays “up” with exercise. (To the embarrassment of her children, she says, she especially loves to dance.) Most importantly, she reminds herself repeatedly of how much she loves her country and of how much she wants others to have the opportunity she had to achieve the American Dream.
“My passion is my love of my country, my love of the American Dream and opportunity and being able to give that to the next generation,” she said. “We are such an amazing, great, exceptional nation and, every day, I wake up and know how blessed we are to live here. Our opportunity is limitless — and the threat that someone is trying to take that away from us is upsetting. … I want to make sure that’s there for everybody. That’s what fuels me.”