Should she run like a southeast Floridian to placate some Democratic primary voters, party leaders and activists but thus putting herself ideologically and geographically at peril in a potential General Election against Adam Putnam, a conventional conservative who has appeared twice on the statewide ballot, winning impressive majorities both times? Or does she run like a more conservative North Floridian thus putting herself at odds with the burgeoning growth of the state which is taking place south of Ocala but north of Port St Lucie? Or is there a happy medium she can exploit, something that lifts the Democrats to its first gubernatorial victory in over two decades?
The old coalition of southeast Florida and the Big Bend/Eastern Panhandle (the counties between the Apalachicola River and Gainesville) last carried a Democrat to victory in the 1996 Presidential Election – ironically the same day the party lost control of the State House when four seats all south of Ocala (including the first victory of Adam Putnam flipping a Polk County seat the Democrats had held for the six years since the Chiles landslide of 1990) but north of Fort Myers flipped to the GOP. In that day and age the Jeffersonian-styled counties surrounding Tallahassee were married to carry Democrats to victory over the votes of the “Republican horseshoe” which ran from Naples through Sarasota up into the I-4 corridor and back down through the Space Coast and Treasure Coast to Palm Beach. Today, Republicans have lost much of the horseshoe (particularly Orange County which was in the 1970’s and 1980’s the “buckle” on this horseshoe) but have won 17 of the last 18 governor/cabinet races by winning majorities albeit reduced ones in the old horseshoe and flipping areas to the north permanently to the GOP.
Much like Alex Sink’s candidacy in 2010 and Rob Smith’s failed primary campaign in 2006, some Democratic insiders hope Graham is the candidate that can flip North Florida counties, those places she ran strong in her only congressional run (2014) back to the Democratic column. But as we learned with Sink, flipping those counties often involves opportunity costs in areas of the state that are more populated – In 2014, Charlie Crist took the opposite approach, focusing heavily on Democratic southeast Florida, but ending up with a similar deficit in statewide votes. Even though Sink and Crist lost by similar margins it’s important to overlay where the two sets of results on a county-level. Crist’s winning margins from southeast Florida and the Orlando area were higher than Sink’s but he was slaughtered in rural North Florida counties where Sink and her husband Bill McBride had won, and Jim Davis had held his own in 2006 (ironically against then-Republican Charlie Crist).
Today’s elections tend to be base turnout wars. Crist’s strategists understood this but still fell short with a reduced margin of victory in Hillsborough County as well as the definitive loss of Volusia being the decisive factors. Another factor that worked against Crist was the Obama Administration’s unwillingness to deal with immigration before the election in deference to four US Senators running for reelection in conservative states – all four lost anyhow, while Crist likely would have won had the President been willing to buck the cries of DC establishment figures to postpone action on the issue until after the election.
Graham’s former Congressional District is a microcosm of the nation – it contains two public universities, many agrarian areas, a large liberal city in Tallahassee, a classic conservative medium-sized city in Panama City and a military base in Tyndall AFB. It is the type of place Democrats have to start winning again to become a relevant national party. But running to placate voters in a district like the former CD-2 will likely result in the same types of opportunity costs that hurt Sink in the rest of the state. It’s worth noting no candidate based north of Winter Park (excluding incumbent officeholders who of course technically live in Tallahasssee) has won a US Senate or Gubernatorial election in Florida since 1974. So should Graham run as a southeast Floridian? Probably not.
It’s worth noting that southeast Florida’s importance in statewide elections is waning – the area represents less of a prize in Democratic primaries today than the I-4 corridor (a reversal from every Democratic primary between 1960 and 2006), and is much less relevant in General Elections than the sprawling region from St Petersburg to Daytona Beach. When you include adjoining counties to the generally accepted region of the I-4 corridor you find over 35% of the likely Democratic Primary voters and over the 40% of eligible General Election ones. It is worth noting Putnam hails from Polk County.
Southeast Florida is also geographically and culturally isolated from the rest of Florida, even if it represents a microcosm of the types of urbane, cosmopolitan and liberal places Democrats still win nationally. This election after all is a Florida election, not a national one. If Democrats cow tow to southeast Florida they will continue to lose statewide elections – the party seems to not have learned this lesson as they have stacked Florida’s DNC delegation with southeast Floridians.
Graham has a dilemma. On paper, she’d have been the perfect candidate for the state in 1980’s or 1990’s. Progressive enough, but conservative enough. Tallahassee-based but rooted in southeast Florida. But today’s Florida has been transformed and this leaves those smart women and men helping to plot Graham’s path forward a real dilemma. What would have been a dream candidate (on paper) based on old norms now be a fundamentally mispositioned one.
Finding answers to this paradox are the task of the best and brightest the state has on the Democratic side of aisle. It will be interesting to see how Graham proceeds.