Newly elected Congresswoman Gwen Graham is not your average freshman. As the daughter of of a former Florida Governor and US Senator her visibility from the word go was higher than just about any other Democratic Congressional challenger in the nation. Then in a wipe-out year for Democrats on so many levels she became one of the few national bright spots, a positive especially given so many Democrats in Florida, and people associated with the FDP and local DEC’s in North Florida worked like mad to get her elected.
Graham’s first week in office though did little to satisfy activist Democrats. Casting a vote against Nancy Pelosi for Speaker is a symbolic, yet seemingly trivial attempt to push away from the party publicly. In the past these speaker roll call votes did not matter. In the early 1980’s Conservative Democrats from the South whose voting records were further to the right than many CONSERVATIVE Republicans still voted for Tip O’Neill to be speaker. Despite qualms liberal Republicans had with many GOP leaders they generally voted for them. When Newt Gingrich’s ethical problems made an ouster a real possibility after the 1996 elections, it was the moderates in his caucus who stood strong and delivered the votes for him to keep the job.
It is true that no consequence for Graham’s vote on Speaker exists. Though it would be within the rights of the Democratic Caucus to punish her by use of committee assignments. But ultimately, it is pointless and Graham did indicate well beforehand that she would not support Pelosi for Speaker.
But more troubling than symbolic votes are substantive ones and Graham cast several unfortunate ones during her first week in office. The vote that most offended me was Congresswoman Graham siding with the Republican majority to weaken the Dodd-Frank regulatory structure. Representing a largely rural, poor and southern district, Graham’s vote with Wall Street bankers, powerful Washington lobbyists and large northern corporations was stunning. More on this vote shortly.
Graham also voted to weaken the Affordable Care Act by mandating an increase to a 40 hours the minimum an employee must work to be eligible for Health Care. She also voted for the Keystone XL pipeline, but this vote honestly makes sense in her district and the bill is undoubtedly going to be vetoed by the President. So while I STRONGLY oppose the pipeline, it was a a free vote for Graham and an understandable one in her district.
The 2nd Congressional District leans Republican but just – it’s a seat where economics matter and where a good old fashioned populist southerner could do very well. It is also a district where Pete Peterson and Don Fuqua compiled voting records closer to the midpoint of the Democratic Caucus on economic issues than to the extreme right where Graham now sits. Even Allen Boyd who had support from the NFIB in his very first House Campaign mixed his economic record more than Graham appears willing to do initially.
So let’s get back to those two economic based votes. Both of those decisions from my vantage point are way off base in Graham’s lower income, largely rural district that has the highest percentage of African-Americans of any non-minority access seat in the state. The votes only make sense if Graham is doing one of three things:
A) Creating a true “third way” with a handful of other dissident Democrats much like the Boll Weevils did after the 1980 electoral disaster (when Democrats still controlled the House but had lost the Senate as well as the Presidency so the 40 or so Democrats in the conservative faction had the votes to swing big issues towards the GOP) or the Blue Dogs attempted after the 1994 debacle and during the George W. Bush years. But very few other House Democrats of the moderately conservative profile still exist. Even fewer exist from rural-oriented ticket-splitting districts.
B) Running all the way to the right to try and maximize support from business interests to prevent the next GOP nominee from having all the corporate support Republicans typically count on in targeted Congressional races.
C) Planning on running statewide in 2016 or 2018 and wants to get big money corporate interests behind her at this early stage.
Mixed voting record candidates almost inevitably are eventually spit out either in party primaries or in wave election years. That is why the US House is so ideologically driven on both sides these days.
It is possible that Graham has not thought through her votes. But assuming she has let’s run through those options listed above.
Option A makes some sense but I am not sure that faction exists anymore as recent elections have cleared out most moderate Democrats and one must wonder if Graham is the best leader for that group if it does exist. The second option is possible but I don’t think Graham is going to spend two years voting with the GOP on every single major economic issue just to avoid a serious race, but I could be wrong.
While the convenient narrative in the last week has been that Graham is simply running as far to the right for reelection purposes (option B), I actually believe she must be entertaining option C, which is a statewide run soon.
Many Democrats in Florida have decided Charlie Crist’s brand of economic populism does not work. They made this determination following Crist’s defeat but others simply want to appeal to business interests in order to raise campaign cash. Graham, who is advised by and aligned with many more conservative elements within the party probably believes to be viable statewide you must position yourself toward the right on economics.
Graham defeated the conservative yet ineffectual incumbent Steve Southerland in November. During that race, Graham depended on the blood, sweat and tears of liberal activists and the generous support of the Florida Democratic Party and local DEC’s, especially the well organized effort in Leon County. Many who worked hard for Graham are rightly upset and feeling burned at this point in time.
But it seems Graham, who needed help to get elected for the first time now might be on a glide-path upwards toward something bigger. This is especially true since the Democrats in Florida lack a real bench or any strong statewide infrastructure to recruit candidates.
So while Graham’s voting record is unacceptable from a progressive perspective and a bit confusing given her district’s leanings she must be thinking a statewide run is possible soon. This could make Marco Rubio, Adam Putnam and Jeff Atwater just a little more nervous about their respective futures.