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Gwen Graham Needs Wider Focus to Beat Steve Southerland

April 13, 2014 - 6:00pm
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 Grahams 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 its Grahams 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, Southerlands 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 cant 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.

Southerlands 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 couldnt take advantage of Obamas and Nelsons coattails. Even as Democrats came out in full force in Leon County, Lawson couldnt 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 wont 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, Grahams 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 Deans 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 cant beat Southerland.

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

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