Primary night confirmed what the Florida Democratic establishment most wanted this election cycle: a massive Patrick Murphy victory for US Senate and a resounding electoral repudiation of Congressman Alan Grayson.
The establishment will crow about the Grayson defeat and call it a referendum supporting its ongoing mission to push, shove, and kick progressives out the door, but the reality is the fatal wounds that led this one-sided contest were self-inflicted.
Pulling back the curtain on the Grayson campaign reveals more convoluted backstory and incomprehensible missteps than perhaps any local campaign in the past 10 years.
Early on, it appeared to many that Grayson had the political chops, the legislative history, and the credibility to hold onto his reclaimed Congressional seat for years; perhaps decades. Republicans saw him as a sharp-tongued progressive wild man, and his constituents loved it. But Democratic party insiders had other ideas. They favored Florida Rep. Patrick Murphy, the son of a wealthy developer, and generous donor, Murphy had actually been a Republican recently enough that he voted for Mitt Romney. Progressives were appalled, but the big blue dogs were angry at Grayson. Harry Reid famously told Grayson to his face that he hoped he’d lose, and even President Obama endorsed Murphy, even as reporting revealed he had largely manufactured his resume, fudging everything from his college degree (he had one, not the two he claimed, and even that was not the one he said) to his supposed business experience, which turned out to comprise his father buying an oil cleanup company in Louisiana shortly before its demise.
Still, it was going to require a disciplined campaign for Grayson to win Florida. His resume was real, and few can get Democrats on their feet railing about protecting Social Security or Republican attacks on health care reform like Grayson. Who would debate him? How could his name recognition and core of true believers be overcome?
Somewhere along the line the campaign decided not to play to those strengths. Instead, Grayson built an oddly underfed, flailing proto-campaign. Relying heavily on press releases, cutting personal appearances down instead of ramping them up, and queerly refusing to even begin a serious direct mail campaign. Even if Jack Kennedy rose from the dead and decided for the Senate in Florida, he’d need direct mail to win. Not new, but also not helpful, Grayson’s boisterous, often poorly considered rhetoric found him battling his soon-to-be ex-spouse, and raging at reporters following-up on opposition leads as “shitting robots.”
Trouble started as far back as 2015, with an ill-advised campaign shakeup which included pushing out Kevin Franck. A PCCC press officer with real seasoning, Franck had everything a progressive campaign would want, but was unable to get the candidate to take direction. Soon after he left there would be a mysterious cloud of unresolved allegations regarding leaks to the press from within the campaign. Was it Franck, a career press man, or someone deeper inside? No one knew, and no one ever found out.
From that point on, the campaign seemed to flail impotently, unsure even what it wanted to do. From the “barnstorming bus tour” that evaporated, to snubbing environmental allies down south, and even getting into a physical scuffle with a Politico reporter on the day it was reported there were issues with physical scuffles on the domestic front. Top to bottom, the campaign seemed to have no sense of itself or even what it wanted to do.
And thus he handed off this Congressional seat to conservadem Darren Soto in order to chase a Senate seat that most believed he’s ill-tempered for, as evidenced by his stated motivation: because he hates Patrick Murphy—granted, that’s compelling. Score two conservadem wins from one safe progressive seat. Good going.
Perhaps the greatest sadness is that if ever there were a politician whose manner befit the House rather than the Senate, it’s Alan Grayson. The House was designed to hear the collective bombast of the masses, and despite his missteps and shortcomings he did a good job at being a member of the House of Representatives. I’ve heard it said many times, “he’s an asshole, but he’s our asshole.”
Those who said this disappeared from sight this election cycle. One by one allies dropped off. Running his new wife against his long-time friend and advisor Susannah Randolph cleaved his base closest to home in Orange County. Naturally those most involved in progressive work are going to gravitate to the person who helped to make so much happen by his side for many years. Once you shun your base, who’s left? Darryl Rouson?
Losing Grayson, at this point, is better for Movement Progressives than wondering what public relations disaster they’ll have to provide cover for next.
Many of the reasons Grayson lost were mechanical and unrelated to the public behavior of the candidate. The type of energetic field program you would associate with a progressive icon was lacking, as was logical targeting of potential voters. The campaign didn’t do a single piece of direct mail, while spending money on less effective means of communication seemed quite odd. In Florida’s low-turnout summer August Democratic primary, direct mail has long been the most effective and useful means of communication. Patrick Murphy flooded likely Democratic voters mailboxes with multiple well-done mail pieces which focused on campaign themes and his endorsement from President Obama.
Not doing direct mail and spending money that could have been used to communicate directly with targeted voters on largely untargeted events and media ultimately compounded the errors candidate and campaign had made earlier. Having no field program to speak of or making errors that are limited in exposure to political junkies is potentially non-fatal if you employ an effective direct mail program followed by a GOTV effort. But the Grayson campaign continued to compound its errors. A simple narrative would be that the campaign was done in by the allegations of domestic violence, but in reality that was just one point on a slippery slope that led to a humiliating defeat.
Eventually, Grayson allowed his campaign staff autonomy to attack Randolph in CD-9 via social media and other platforms. This came after weeks of trying to cull Randolph supporters from his ranks. It must be noted that Randolph was among the candidates running against Grayson’s new wife Dena in his old Congressional seat.
Ultimately Grayson splintered the progressive movement and had no one left in his political base to count on. Even worse, his campaign seemed wholly amateurish, but perhaps that’s more a reflection of the leadership from the top than anything else.