Gwen Graham’s victory should give Florida Democrats something to think about. The rookie politician knew she could not overcome Congressman Steve Southerland’s appeal in nine counties he carried by more than 60 percent in the previous election.
She campaigned in them anyway.
Southerland, R-Panama City, won election in the Tea Party wave in 2010 and re-election in 2012 with 53 percent of the vote. Voters in the farming, logging and fishing communities stretching from Bay to Taylor County may be registered Democrat but they vote Republican. Perhaps they just haven’t gotten around to changing registration.
“Heck, I didn’t bother to do it until Clinton was president,” said Elmer Coker, chair of the Taylor County Republican Executive Committee, who said no one in his family has voted for a Democrat for president since Harry Truman left the White House. He spoke while watching Graham march in Perry’s annual Forest Festival Parade ten days before the election.
Coker had no intention of voting for Graham because she has ties to Tallahassee environmentalists and he considers the EPA the greatest threat facing the country. Clean water advocates a few years back harassed a Perry paper mill about dumping water into the Fenholloway and damaging sea grass in the Gulf, putting good jobs at risk. Southerland wrote a bill reining in the EPA’s authority
It didn’t matter, Graham waved and smiled at Coker and his vice chair who wore a “Smart Democrats vote Republican” T-shirt.
Graham’s competitive nature may at times led her to believe she could carry a majority of the district’s 14 counties but her understanding of people and politics had her working areas where she had no chance of winning. She understood waving her flag where her supporters were outnumbered had value.
It’s an encouraging gesture to kindred spirits who live their lives surrounded by people with whom they don’t agree.
A constant refrain from Graham when asked about her rural county strategy was she wanted “to let every voter know they matter.”
She erased Steve Southerland’s 18,000 vote margin incrementally. In 2012, Al Lawson lost Wakulla County by 4,000 votes. In 2014, Graham lost by 1,530, receiving 43 percent of the vote – a battle lost but a contribution to a winning effort.
In 2012, Al Lawson received 27 percent of the vote in Bay County, losing by 35,000 votes. Graham picked up 30 percent of the vote and lost by 28,426.
Campaign appearances in Bay, Jackson, Taylor, Liberty counties and so on were investments that paid off in smaller victory margins for Southerland, reducing his vote total and enabling Graham’s super majority victory margin in Leon and Gadsden withstand his rural appeal.
The Florida State University political science student who eats and sleeps at my house said he didn’t know what Charlie Crist was campaigning on. He was among the local DEC’s get out the vote effort.
Graham received 3,000 more votes in Leon than Charlie Crist did; spending a half hour on the phone on Election Day with one undecided voter.
Alex Sink received more votes in Duval County in 2010 than Crist did in 2014.
Think about that for a while when comparing the Graham and Crist strategies.
Crist focused his campaign on the I-4 corridor and south, conceding north Florida to Gov. Rick Scott.
Interesting thing about when Crist finally brought his campaign to the Capitol City the weekend before the election. Whereas Graham would approach and hug people, people ran to Crist for hugs and photos.
When Crist waved his flag at Bragg Stadium the crowd more than saluted, people made it a personal moment.
If you accept that there is value in going out among the voters, encouraging like-minded individuals to support different policies and your candidate is who many consider the best retail politician the state has and his campaign focus is on sunny south Florida, then why did he lack a tan when he came to Tallahassee?
Graham worked the small communities and backwoods where she knew if she picked up just 35 or 40 percent of the vote she would prevail; she left nothing uncontested.
Southerland warned voters Graham had ties to Howard Dean, the 2004 presidential candidate and later DNC chair who implemented a 50-state strategy as both.
Maybe it showed in a 14-county strategy.
Maybe Florida Democrats should consider a 67-county strategy.