Gwen Graham Needs Wider Focus to Beat Steve Southerland

By: Jeff Henderson | Posted: April 15, 2014 3:55 AM
Gwen Graham

Gwen Graham

Even as they increasingly cede the U.S. House will stay under Republican control, Democrats have high hopes for Gwen Graham as she looks to defeat Steve Southerland in the Big Bend.

Graham has started off strong, raking in dollars and lining up outside groups to run attack ads on Southerland. But Graham has also shown signs of falling into a trap which plagued Allen Boyd and Al Lawson when they took on Southerland: focusing too much on Leon County. 

Graham turned in enough signatures to make the ballot by petition and, earlier this month, she trumpeted the news.

“I am so humbled by the outpouring of support our campaign has received – this is an early but important signal demonstrating our grassroots strength across the district,” said Graham. “From volunteers knocking on doors to neighbors talking to neighbors, our campaign is continuing to gain incredible momentum thanks to thousands of North Florida residents who share our commitment to putting problem-solving over politics in order to break the gridlock in Washington. I look forward to working with Republicans, Democrats and independents as we fight to bring independent, North Florida values back to Congress.”

But Graham’s petitions revealed a major weakness as more than 80 percent of her signatures came from her home base of Leon County. With state government and two large universities in Tallahassee, Leon County is a rare blue county in conservative North Florida and it’s Graham’s home base. Certainly state employees have fond memories of her father Bob Graham and the congressional hopeful has done her best to point her ties to the former governor and U.S. senator.

But there are 11 other counties in the district and Graham dropped the ball in them. In six of the 12 counties in the district, Graham could only muster less than 10 signatures. Southerland, on the other hand, got more than half of his signatures outside his home base of Bay County.

"Gwen Graham claims she'd be a voice for all the people of Florida's 2nd District in Congress,” said Luke Strickland, Southerland’s campaign manager.  “Unfortunately for her, the numbers indicate she's got a long way to go. When 83 percent of the people that helped put Ms. Graham on the ballot come from her home county and she can't even muster 10 supporters in half of our 12 rural counties, it's polite to say that her reach is, at best, limited."

"While I am certainly proud of the overwhelming support I've received in Bay County, I am even prouder of the fact that more than half of my ballot signatures came from outside of my home county,” Southerland said. “It shows the true depth of support we have and the momentum our campaign is generating when neighbors from outside your own backyard are willing to stand up and fight with us. I am truly blessed by the friendships we've built from Panama City to Tallahassee and all points in-between."

To be sure, Leon is the biggest county in the district and some of the rural counties have little in the way of population. But Bay County, where Panama City is, certainly can’t be written off and Graham needs to get out of Tallahassee and away from relying on the support of state employees and university professors if she wants to make this a race.

Southerland’s last win shows the trap Graham can easily fall into. Democrats had a top tier candidate in Al Lawson, a Tallahassee legend who spent decades in the Florida Senate. Lawson was helped by massive Democratic turnout to support Barack Obama and Bill Nelson in their respective elections. Obama cruised in Leon County, getting 62 percent there. Nelson did even better, taking 66 percent while Connie Mack mustered only 32 percent in Leon County.

But Lawson couldn’t take advantage of Obama’s and Nelson’s coattails. Even as Democrats came out in full force in Leon County, Lawson couldn’t take down Southerland. The Republican kept his seat 53 percent to 47 percent, a solid win in a swing district in a Democratic year.

Graham could fall into the same trap of focusing too much on Leon County and ignoring the rest of the district. Even with Obama and Nelson helping him in 2012, Lawson simply dropped the ball outside of Leon County. Based on her petitions, Graham could have the same problem and, no matter how mad state employees might be at Rick Scott, Leon County won’t have the same turnout it had in 2012.

Simply put, Graham has to get out of Leon County and away from the cocoon of government workers and Democratic diehards. With Republicans already sharpening the knives, Graham’s going to have to go to Bay County and the rural areas in the district and explain her thoughts on Obmacare, her support of Nancy Pelosi and why she worked for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign.

To be sure, Graham has more than six months to make her case, but she has to get out of Leon County. If she ignores the rest of the district -- like she did with petitions -- she can’t beat Southerland.

Tallahassee based political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis exclusively for Sunshine State News.

Comments (13)

3:09AM APR 25TH 2014
11:17PM APR 18TH 2014
Give Gwen credit, she's already spinning and talking like a politician. She's the last thing we need in Congress. Go Steve!
M Richmond
9:15PM APR 16TH 2014
Gwen Graham wouldn't recognize 13 counties in this district if they walked up and bit her in the backside. In fact, she was going to run for Congress a few years back.......in her home region of South Florida.
Herb S
5:28PM APR 16TH 2014
Any voter across this panhandle district should NEVER forget that $outherland participated in the Klan that shut down our government at the cost of $24 billion! Then he touts himself as a man of faith who cut supplemental nutrition to children and the elderly, the very vulnerable of our society. An attack on God's children is an attack against God. The hypocrite has hell to pay!
Bridgett W
10:03AM APR 16TH 2014
I live west of the river, which means I've never seen Gwen. Tallahassee is a great place Gwen, but you know there are 13 other counties with people who need jobs, a quality education system, etc too. But I guess your blind love for Obamacare is something you probably don't want to get asked about out here, huh?!
8:38AM APR 16TH 2014
Is this a story or a talking points memo for Gwen Graham and the democrats?
J Moore
7:11PM APR 15TH 2014
I feel that congressman Southerland has done an excellent job of representing the Panhandle. He is everywhere in CD-2 so we know him and he knows us. Most of our district is very different from Tallahassee, so the fact that Ms Graham got over 80% of her signed petitions from Leon Count tells me either she didn't't bother with my area or that she couldn't get any rural residents to sign for her.
3:11AM APR 25TH 2014
9:24AM APR 15TH 2014
Yes, yes, always trust the words that partisan political SSN minions "provide" to Democratic candidates they've previously demonized and belittled . . . . .

Pathetic . . . . .
Dennis Lane
9:01AM APR 15TH 2014
We live and work here in Panama City.
Gwen represents the great bulk of our citizens who
are working for a living. Steve Southerland follows
a restrictive ideology which benefits the few. We are
a bunch of hard working folks who really want to have
our voice heard in Washington.
7:51AM APR 15TH 2014
Let us think about this. Graham has ethics, compassion, and supports policies that are for the good of the folks. Southerland is Captain of the Dead Sea Skinny Dipping Society and hates, really hates ordinary folks being willing to destroy the economy and leave anyone who is poor and disadvantaged in any way to die beside the road.
Tommy Hamm
10:33AM APR 16TH 2014
That is about one of the most ignorant statements I have seen in a long time. The "poor and disadvantage" are exactly what the Liberal left prey on to keep them just exactly that, just another voting block to them. Welfare programs have become a sustained way of life instead of a beneficial safety net. Parameters are wider, benefits last longer, and accountability is intentional removed to promote corruption to nothing but enslave these people for generations to come. It is truly a diabolical dependent trap of the worst kind and the Democrats wish for more of this. Steve represents the the individual power and freedom we all can gain by working for living, keeping the most of OUR money and turning this country into a country of assets not liabilities.
3:13AM APR 25TH 2014

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