The last Democrat to win be elected Governor of Florida was Lawton Chiles back in 1994. While the elections since then have often been close, with incumbent Rick Scott only winning by a single point in both 2010 and 2014, Democrats have simply been unable to turn the state blue again. But with Florida becoming more diverse by the day, the Democratic Party sees hope for the future.
Congresswoman Gwen Graham believes that she can deliver on that hope in next year’s gubernatorial race. But before she can make a play against her Republican opponent, she’s going to have to secure a victory in the hotly contested Democratic primary. Like New Jersey and Virginia’s 2017 Democratic primaries, Florida’s will be seen as a retread of the 2016 Democratic presidential primary – a battle between the centrist wing, in the vein of Hillary Clinton, and progressive wing, in the vein of Bernie Sanders. Rep. Graham, belonging to the centrist wing of the party, will face a host of strong progressive rivals, most notably Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and Orlando entrepreneur Chris King.
The daughter of former Florida Governor and Senator Bob Graham, Gwen Graham is no novice to politics. She was elected to represent Florida’s 2nd district in the United States House of Representatives in 2014, impressively defeating a Republican incumbent in a year where Democrats had a net loss of 22 seats in Congress. However, redistricting turned her safely blue district into one of the reddest in the nation, largely by shifting most of the black voters into Florida’s notoriously gerrymandered 5th district. Rep. Graham did not run for re-election in 2016, and a Republican ended up replacing her with 67.3% of the vote.
Though considered a swing state in presidential elections, Florida, like much of the country, has turned redder in recent years for a variety of reasons, including low minority turnout, gerrymandering, and voter suppression.
Graham is hoping that her reputation for bipartisanship and focus on environmental protection will hew enough on both sides of the aisle to win her the governor’s office.
Graham’s opening salvos for her gubernatorial bid are education and the environment, highlighting the two strongest pillars of her professional success. Graham, a mother of three, served both as PTA president as well as a labor lawyer for the Leon County School District in Tallahassee, while her legal career “focused on environmental and energy issues.”
Graham has made the environment a central part of her campaign. As governor, she would keep Florida in the Paris Accord, restore the wetlands, and support renewable energy. Her campaign calls it her plan to “make the Sunshine State the Solar State.” Graham has opposed fracking and hydraulic fracking and supports President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
Unfortunately, her environmental record in Congress is less than pristine. For a candidate who has made such a strong case for the laudable goals of clean energy and supporting the Paris Climate Accord, Rep. Graham has made some odd votes in her single term in the House. She was one of the few Democrats who voted with her Republican colleagues for the controversial Keystone Pipeline as well as one of two dozen Democrats who voted with Republicans in opposition to the EPA’s clean-water rule. Graham still has plenty of time to figure out how to square the circles between her stated position and her voting record, as the gubernatorial primary is still more than a year away.
In the meantime, Democrats can continue to agonize over the perceived ideological divides within the party, and which, if either, will guide the party in the right direction. Florida’s gubernatorial primary is one of many battlefields that will determine that future. Demographic trends point to a bright future for the Democratic Party, but until the demographics change and ballot access is fairly expanded enough to skew these swing state blue, there will be candidates like Gwen Graham that will make overtures to the white voters Democratic leaders believe narrowly swung the election to Donald Trump. Speaking of her party’s loss, Graham called the Democrat’s message “too funneled,” claiming that it needs to be flexible enough to appeal to more moderate and conservative voters.
Though Graham is best known for her single term in the House of Representatives, her first foray into politics occurred much earlier, when she aided her father in his failed bid for the presidency in 2004, only to join Howard Dean’s doomed campaign, then finally jumping ship to eventual Democratic nominee John Kerry’s losing bid. Hopefully, for Gwen Graham’s sake, her lackluster past has taught her valuable lessons, rather than being albatross.