Whispers are growing louder that Steve Southerland could seek a rematch with Gwen Graham in 2016.
At first glance, Southerland looks like a long shot to return to Congress. The GOP generally did well in Florida and across the nation last year but Southerland was one of two congressional Republican incumbents who lost their seats.
Admittedly, Southerland did not run the best of campaigns in 2014. He waited far too long to question Grahams claim to be a political outsider, a questionable statement from a former aide to John Kerry and Howard Dean, not to mention being the daughter of a three-term U.S. senator and two-term governor. Graham might be a Democrat but she is no hard-left liberal and Southerlands attempts to paint her as a Nancy Pelosi clone fell flat.
Even worse, Southerland has made a few mistakes over the years which came back and bit him in 2014: complaining he could make more money had he never served in Congress, reports about skinny dipping in the Dead Sea during a congressional junket, having an all-male fundraiser and, when Democrats pounded him for it, asking Graham if she ever went to an all-female lingerie shower. Graham and her allies portrayed Southerland as overly concerned about his perks and status in the constant stream of ads they unleashed last year. The attacks took their toll on Southerland but they were even more effective due to his series of self-inflicted wounds.
Graham will be far tougher to overcome in 2016 despite beating Southerland by less than 3,000 votes last year. Democrats are far more competitive in presidential election years than they are in off-year elections. Last time out, Southerland had the power of incumbency, the full support of the NRCC and various other arms of the GOP and had no primary opponent. The same might not be true in 2016.
During her two and a half months in Congress, Graham has run toward the center, making attempts to paint her a liberal even tougher. She voted against Pelosi to lead House Democrats, instead throwing her support to Tennessee Blue Dog Jim Cooper. Graham has supported Keystone XL, opposed gun control and is looking to cut down on congressional perks. Sure, she goes left on social issues but those were never in Southerlands wheelhouse.
Democrats think they have a star in Graham and shes already getting attention as a possible candidate for statewide office in the future. If Southerland could not beat her in a strong Republican year, his chances look even worse in a presidential election year. Southerland will need to find a totally new strategy, cut down on his gaffes and discover Grahams weak spots if he runs again -- and even then he will have an uphill struggle.
Tallahassee based political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis exclusively for Sunshine State News.