Steve Southerland and Gwen Graham Get Ready to Battle in CD 2

By: Jeff Henderson | Posted: March 1, 2014 3:55 AM
Steve Southerland and Gwen Graham

Steve Southerland and Gwen Graham

Democrats have little chance of taking control of the U.S. House this year but there are a handful of Republican incumbents they hope to defeat come November. The biggest target for Democrats in Florida is Steve Southerland and he can expect a real battle for a third term.

Gwen Graham is getting backing from Democrats at the state and national levels. Graham learned some important lessons by helping her father Bob’s various campaigns and when she was on Howard Dean’s and John Kerry’s staffs. During her campaign so far, Graham has done a masterful job of appealing to both liberals and moderates. That was certainly on display this week. The fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition endorsed Graham but she could also hobnob with leading Florida Democrats like Buddy MacKay and Rod Smith. Graham has also been able to keep pace with Southerland on fundraising. There’s a reason Chuck Todd on MSNBC included Graham with Alvin Brown and Val Demings as rising stars for Florida Democrats on Friday.

Graham is also doing a good job of keeping Al Lawson happy. After his many years in the Legislature, Lawson was involved in bloody Democratic primaries in 2010 and 2012 which only served to help Southerland. Lawson threatened to run a third time but the Democratic establishment wanted Graham to have an easy path to the nomination. Graham and Lawson appeared side by side earlier this week and, for the moment, are on the same page.

Southerland does well with constituent services and he does fit the district outside of Tallahassee and Gadsden County. The congressman’s ability to be a bridge between the business leadership and the tea party has been impressive.

But Southerland’s not a natural politician despite his two wins. Besides having the benefits of ugly primaries on the Democratic side, Southerland beat out a less-than-impressive Republican primary field back in 2010. There’s a nagging suspicion that Southerland can do well against a black liberal like Lawson but perhaps not against a white moderate, which is why Democratic leadership wanted Leonard Bembry to be the nominee in 2012 and are backing Graham now.

Southerland can often shoot himself in the foot. The best example of that was back in 2011 when Southerland griped that he could have done better staying in the private sector instead of relying on his $174,000 congressional salary. But Southerland did it again this week as he attacked Barack Obama for closing an Obamacare call center in Bay County after spending the last few years calling for the repeal of that law.

“The loss of 730 Bay County jobs is a stark reminder of America’s transformation into a part-time, short-term society,” Southerland said. “I am saddened that these hard-working men and women are paying the price for the Obama administration’s unyielding pursuit of a job-crushing, Washington-first agenda that has made private-sector job growth more difficult by the day. With nearly 80 percent of new jobs representing part-time opportunities, we must do better to restore the certainty that these 730 Northwest Floridians deserved from the start.”

Southerland’s complaints about closing the Obamacare call center should raise eyebrows. So should Southerland’s point about part-time jobs. That’s not exactly the message the Republican Party of Florida (RPOF) wants to focus on since Rick Scott’s campaign team’s main bullet point has been job creation. To be sure, Southerland is still on the reservation. When Charlie Crist came to Tallahassee, Southerland was more than happy to go after him on behalf of Scott and the RPOF. But the call center comment shows how Southerland isn’t the most natural of politicians. 

Democrats have high hopes for Graham and they should. She’s done everything right so far and got a break with Lawson staying out. But, despite his occasional slip, Southerland’s won twice for a reason even as Democrats came out to vote for Obama in 2012. Outside groups are already running ads here and this is going to end up as one of the most watched congressional races in the nation. With the exception of Scott’s showdown with Crist, the Southerland-Graham contest is the biggest political contest in Florida this year.

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



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6:30AM MAR 24TH 2014

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