From the minute she announced her campaign for Governor in May 2017, up until the polls closed on August 28th, former Congresswoman Gwen Graham of Tallahassee was seen as the favorite for the Democratic nomination, but as soon as the election day totals started to roll in it all came crumbling down for Graham, in a result reminiscent of what happened to Hillary Clinton on election night in November 2016.
Graham, the daughter of popular former Governor Bob Graham, had carefully cultivated a moderate brand for herself rising from Leon County Schools to become a one-term Congresswoman after winning a narrow upset victory in the 2014 FL-02 house race over Steve Southerland. From the minute she won that House Seat she was seen as rising Democratic star. It was clear she had her sights set on a higher office, and court mandated redistricting helped expedite her exit from the House and move towards the race for Governor.
From the Tampa Bay Times to the FEA, Emily’s List. To Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Graham racked up endorsements that ensured she maintained her status as the frontrunner, even while she was outspent by Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and wealthy businessman Jeff Greene in the final months of the race. Graham also led nearly every poll conducted in the last 40 days of the primary, some by comfortable margins, while other candidates moved up and down the ladder. In the end though, it was an Andrew Gillum surge that resulted in her 31% ceiling not being enough to win.
That ceiling was her ultimate downfall, as despite her efforts she was never able to consolidate more than a third of the state’s Democratic primary electorate behind her, an electorate that is predominantly women and voters over 50 that should have been naturally predisposed to her candidacy. Graham turned out her loyal supporters early and via mail, but late deciders rejected her safe politics for Andrew Gillum’s politics of hope and possibility. As improbable as Gillum’s victory seemed before the primary, after the primary the signs were clear that Graham was a weak front-runner and surge from any of her main challengers would have knocked her off, it’s the same reason Levine stayed competitive in the race throughout, and Greene entered the race in the first place, despite his massive personal liabilities. Graham felt comfortable with the lead she had, and like the rest of her campaign, reacted passively while the candidates around her engaged in aggressive politicking.
What cost Graham was a bland, uninspiring campaign, she lacked energy, and spark, and never proposed anything that made Florida Democrats feel like 2018 would be different after they were demoralized by multiple cycles of statewide defeat at the hands of an increasingly extremist Republican party that has now spawned the right wing Ron DeSantis as its nominee for Governor.
Graham played it safe in a cycle where Dems were seeking bold leadership and inspiration, something that Gillum ended up offering primary voters in spades on healthcare, criminal justice, public education and many other issues. Democrats didn’t hate or disagree with Graham, but her overly consulted campaign resulted in closing argument TV ads insisting she was “bold” without offering anything bold at all and insisting she was the most electable candidate arguments she should have already won.
It wasn’t just uninspiring media that did Graham in, it was uninspiring stump speeches and debates, and not showing up at key grassroots campaign events and meetings across the state where Democratic influencers in the grassroots were looking to kick the tires of the candidates for Governor. Graham joined other Democrats in not showing up to a Tampa NAACP forum that only Gillum attended , and her debate performances were largely panned as stable but bland. In her old North Florida congressional district, she was the polling leader, but she barely campaigned, while Gillum and Levine were willing to show up to even small DEC meetings in North Florida where statewide Democrats haven’t bothered to show up for in years.
Graham once excelled at retail politics in small towns, churches, farms, and workplaces across Florida but as she left a rural North Florida congressional district for a statewide campaign, the handlers surrounding her cut her off from the people of Florida and kept her in an insulated bubble.
Graham also never excelled at coalition building, the best insight into the lack of loyalty her campaign inspired is this article from the trail in the closing days on her Jimmy Buffett GOTV concert in South Florida. Voters attended the event, but many weren’t supporting Graham and her comments could have easily been found on a 1990’s Captain Planet public service announcement “we’re going to fight to protect Florida’s beautiful natural resources and make sure that the state that Jimmy Buffett has been fighting for his whole life is protected into the future for all of us and future generations of Floridians.“” (embed )
Rather than boldly calling out the problems in our state, and how Republicans have made Florida a tale of two states, Graham looked to bridge build to a group of voters who long ago embraced the GOP in force. Regardless of whether or not the ambitious Andrew Gillum’s progressive crusade is successful in November, his efforts to coalition build towards a changing Florida are the path that Florida’s progressives and Democrats must pursue in the years to come as the state’s demographics continue to evolve.
Gwen Graham was once a champion of the North Florida way a brand of progressive populism that meant something to the people of North Florida, but in the end she became a weighed down vehicle for Florida’s Democratic consulting class to stay relevant one last time, that’s why it’s no surprise Gillum overlooked her for the second spot on the ticket and instead went with a fresh face in progressive Chris King of Orlando. The failures of the Graham campaign, like the Crist and Sink campaign’s before it, should be clear examples of what Florida Democrats should not do when running statewide.
Steen Kirby is a Democratic political consultant with Florida based Bold Blue Campaigns and a strong advocate for Florida progressives