Lessons of Hope and Caution from Gwen Graham

Gwen Graham’s victory was the one bright spot on election day, defeating Steve Southerland in Congressional District 2.  Her win gives hope for the red areas of the state, especially in the panhandle where Crist’s defeat was cemented, and gives hope for Democrats in rural North Florida in places that Democrats have not dared run recently. However, there were very special circumstances in the Graham race that gave her an advantage that cannot be replicated. While her victory was incredible, her candidacy and race also had a lot of unique factors that cannot be part of the overall Democratic strategy.

It seems that many around the state are taking the wrong lessons from the Graham win, especially in regards to her label as a “moderate” candidate. It has been the thinking for decades in Florida politics that moderate candidates are the best bet for Democrats and this thinking has brought a slew of losing candidates to statewide races. Moderate candidates fail to ignite the base, turnout voters, or gain enough cross-over support to win. Overall, this victory should not be seen as a victory for moderate candidates; even though Graham stayed very middle of the road, she championed local issues rather than moderate stances. The lesson is not that moderate candidates can win in rural areas, but that planning and field work can flip a district. Gwen Graham cannot be seen as a shining example to return to the ‘run in the middle of the road.’ This is a failing strategy.

While she ran a nearly flawless campaign, there were several factors that cannot be replicated and that she was not responsible for. While this victory was glorious, these conditions cannot be replicated:

1. Name recognition – we’re in short supply of politically-minded offspring running for office. As we gear up for Bush vs. Clinton 2016, name recognition in politics matters more than ever. Bob Graham was a Governor and a Senator and very few around the state would not know that name. It not only helped get her elected, it also helped with fundraising and endorsements.

2. She ran against a deeply flawed candidate who gave plenty of ammunition to attack – I doubt any serious politician will ever risk having a men-only fundraiser after the backlash it has had and the surrounding lingerie comments. You simply cannot plan for the other side to make that big of a mistake. He was also much more conservative than the district truly was, which played a big factor. Not all incumbent Rs are this weak.

3. She outperformed Crist – by a whole lot. Matthew Isbell wrote a great article about it. It shows how her candidacy was more than simply Democratic-performance-index magic, but the result of connecting directly with the voters. She became more than simply the Democratic label. She forged her own identity and got that message to voters, which took a great deal of effort and resources. This is hard to do for local candidates.

4. This race received national recognition and outside money poured in. My grandmother, who lives in Leon county, was getting three or four calls a week throughout the spring. These kinds of national resources will not be available on a small, local scale and therefore cannot be counted on.

Overall these advantages – some of them substantial, like her beloved father – barely put her over the finish line.  She won by the skin of her teeth even with all these factors in her favor.  While it was remarkable, these conditions would be hard to replicate in any other candidate.

As we have mentioned several times on this blog, Democrats have a rural area problem. These problems lie in messaging, organization, and emphasis. The bottom line is that huge swaths of the state are rural and if the Democrats are ever going to make inroads, they have to message better to rural voters. With the success of Amendment 1, the environment seems a logical place to start.

Instead of simply running moderate candidates, here are some important lessons to take from Graham on how she did this that Democrats should focus on:

– She ran a full 18 month campaign. Time matters, especially when flipping a district. She lined up major support – like labor and Emily’s List – before she announced and she campaigned tirelessly for months. Too many races are focused on a six-month timeline, which dramatically limits field exposure. Field works best when it has time to establish firm connections and armies of volunteers.

– She championed local issues. From the Apalachicola Bay to the construction issues on 98 to the education issues in Leon, she knew the issues that resonated with the voters – and it wasn’t woman’s equality and the minimum wage. It was not moderate stance, it was listening to her constituents.

– Her campaign fought for every vote and she went everywhere in the district – even into the red areas where she only had the chance to pick up a couple dozen votes. Many Democratic campaigns work simply targeting their own people. More campaigns need to work to try to shave off soft support from Republicans.

– She ran an extensive field game that focused on all areas of the district. Great field wins a close race every time. With organizers in almost every county, she put her people on the ground and they got results. She also put this in place months ahead of most other field operations in the state – three months before Crist has his field team on the ground.

With her victory, Gwen Graham became a new star of the Democratic Party. However, we all need to recognize that she won by a very close margin and while she is amazing, there is only one of her. We cannot depend on these intrinsic factors to give Democrats an advantage in other races. Instead, we should focus on local issues if we are to make headway into the redder parts of the state.

Overall, the lessons are better organization, better field, and better messaging – not moderation. Let us hope the Florida Democratic Party takes notice.


  1. She also, for instance, organized a roundtable in Gadsden with local electeds and aggrieved senior citizens to discuss the closure of an SSA office in Quincy back in July. Absolutely the kind of overlooked tactic that builds credibility and keeps a candidate in mind locally.

    Good points here Katy.


  2. Barbara DeVane · ·

    Brilliant analysis of Gwen’s success. We have a diehard group of progressives across the Panhandle, especially in Tallahassee and Panama City, that came out everytime I called on them to stand in front of Southerland’s offices in Tallahassee and Panama City to protest his despicable voting record for women, retirees, workers, healthcare, etc etc

    We softened him up and Gwen Graham came in for the kill. Barbara


  3. floridian · ·

    I would like an analysis of Patrick Murphy ’60s victory. He’s a Democrat who won a district carried by Romney. I think he might be won to watch rather than Graham.


    1. Sharon Isern · ·

      He is a favorite I would support…


  4. […] run enough candidates to get reliable DPI on many districts for down-ballot candidates. As I wrote in my Gwen Graham piece, the two main lessons from that race are that an 18 month campaign on local issues can be a […]


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