Gwen Graham is following in Patrick Murphy’s footsteps -- and, so far, it’s working to her advantage. Graham burst onto the political scene last year in a rare bright spot for Democrats, in a lousy election cycle for them.
Despite being the daughter of a longtime senator and a former staffer for Howard Dean and John Kerry, and having national Democrats fall in line behind her, Graham was able to convince North Florida voters that she was a Washington outsider. Graham was also shrewd enough to claim the center from Republican incumbent Steve Southerland, taking a few shots at Obamacare while saying it did not need to be repealed, and even promising to vote against Nancy Pelosi to be House speaker.
So far, Graham has stayed on target. She’s toed the party line on environmental issues and stayed true to her word in voting against Pelosi. While still a supporter of Obamacare, Graham’s broken from the Democrats in trying to reform parts of it.
If this sounds familiar, Patrick Murphy followed a similar path during his first two congressional elections. Murphy took the middle ground from Allen West and beat him by a small margin in 2012, kind of like Graham edged Southerland last year. While he never went as far as to vote against Pelosi, Murphy broke with Democrats when needed, including voting against parts of Obamacare while never calling for its repeal.
Despite a narrow win over West, Murphy roared back big in 2014, burying Carl Domino in a landslide. Even his fiercest critics concede that Murphy has paid close attention to his district -- even though he hasn't succeeded with much on its behalf in D.C. -- and it paid off for him. Now Democrats across the nation are thinking Murphy offers one of their best chances to flip a Senate seat next year.
Graham has tried to follow the same path. She’s been active working the district and trying to claim the political middle. Murphy was lucky enough to have Domino -- who lost primary bids in 2010 and 2012 -- as his opponent and Graham is hoping for something similar. So far Mary Thomas and Pete Williams are her most likely opponents and neither is exactly a top tier recruit.
Plenty of North Florida Republicans are keeping their powder dry for 2018, hoping Graham, after two terms in the House, runs for the Senate if Bill Nelson retires. If that’s the case, Graham will, once again, be following Murphy’s gameplan.
One other factor. Florida could be hosting more competitive congressional races than expected next year. Both parties will have competitive primaries to replace Murphy. Democrats, namely Eric Lynn, are starting to raise some serious money to target David Jolly. Carlos Curbelo and Annette Taddeo look ready to engage in a competitive fight in South Florida. Plenty of Republicans are gunning for Ron DeSantis’ seat now that he is running for the Senate. Republicans can expect a competitive primary to replace Jeff Miller if he runs for the Senate and the same holds true for Democrats if Alan Grayson gets in. Graham could benefit as other congressional races in Florida generate more interest.
Tallahassee political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis exclusively for Sunshine State News.