Gwen Graham: ‘Hug a stranger and take them to the polls’

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Ice cream was the lure for a Gadsden County get-out-the vote rally but former Gov. and First Lady Bob and Adele Graham attracted as much attention as the ice cream and featured speakers, Congressmen James Clyburn of South Carolina and Sanford Bishop of Georgia.

Jim York is a veteran of the Graham administration and was among the 100 Gwen Graham for Congress grassroots supporters in attendance. While standing for a picture with the Grahams and visiting congressmen, York remarked, “I’m a Graham Cracker going way back.”

The remark got a chuckle from Bishop, who represents the counties across the state line from Florida’s 2nd Congressional District.

“All my life my favorite cookie has been a graham cracker,” said Bishop, D-GA, who served on the House Intelligence Committee when Sen. Graham chaired the Senate committee. “And in this case, you can call me a Graham Cracker.”

Graham supporters in the 1980s wore graham cracker label pins and adopted the moniker for moderation. The ability to bridge partisan divides is one of the themes of Gwen Graham’s challenge to incumbent Congressman Steve Southerland.  She argues she will break the gridlock in Washington that Southerland considers a badge of honor.

Bishop, whose South Georgia district shares many of the agricultural and forestry issues of Florida’s 2nd, said he would welcome Graham into Congress’s Blue Dog Coalition.

“We believe in fiscal responsibility and are very, very excited about the prospects of Gwen Graham coming to Congress and working with us to bring the members of Congress together,” Bishop said. “Gwen Graham is a consensus builder by profession and by nature and she has strong DNA.”

Clyburn and Bishop are part of the Democratic effort to break the party’s poor performance in  voter turnout during off-year elections.

Four years ago, Republicans posted a 7-percent advantage over Democrats in turnout and Gov. Rick Scott won by 61,500. Two years ago, Democrats had a 1-percent advantage and President Barack Obama won by 74,000.

Graham’s path to victory is to erase the 18,000-vote victory margin Southerland posted over Al Lawson in 2012.  The district is anchored by Panama City and Tallahassee, with farmlands and forests stretching across the 14-county district; two years ago Southerland carried 10 counties and 53 percent of the vote.

Pundits, consultants and candidates say the 2014 election will turn on the ground game: getting voters to the polls. And the senior Graham said early indications are the Democrats are doing just that.  The Graham strategy is to chip away at Southerland’s strength in the rural counties and increase turnout in the Tallahassee metro area.

A voter registration drive increased voter rolls by more than 11,000.   In Gadsden County, part of the Tallahassee metro, early voting numbers as of Friday showed Democrats with a five-fold advantage over Republicans;   3,412 Democrats have cast ballots compared to 579 Republicans and 200 others.

Graham urged her supporters to maintain that effort through Election Day. She veered off her usual talking point Friday to reference a Panama City News Herald article about her tendency to hug as a greeting.

“The Panama City News Herald said my hugs have become both the message and the medium. Because we need to have more hugging and less fighting,” said Graham who confidently predicted a “happy night for all of us” on Election Day.

“But it won’t happen if everybody doesn’t get out to vote . . . and make sure that you, your family and your friends and, heck, hug a stranger and take them to the polls as well.”

Saturday marks the first weekend of early voting, which tends to draws Democrats in greater numbers than Republicans.  Former President Bill Clinton will attend a Graham rally at Florida A&M University Sunday. Plans are for the rally to end with a soul-to-the-polls march to the nearest voting booth.