For the first time in decades, Florida is poised to see a crowded, wide-open primary for the gubernatorial nomination. Crazy as it seems, the 2018 contest already is well under way.
More than 440 days before the deadline to qualify, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee, the 54-year-old daughter of former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, spent Friday night courting Democrats in Pensacola. On Saturday, members of the Florida College Democrats gathered at USF in Tampa to welcome the three already-announced candidates: Andrew Gillum, 37, the mayor of Tallahassee and a longtime Democratic activist/organizer; Chris King, 38, an Orlando businessman and political newcomer; and Philip Levine, 55, a multimillionaire entrepreneur and mayor of Miami Beach.
Meanwhile, trial lawyer John "For the People" Morgan is content to publicly flirt with a run without committing. The ubiquitous TV ad man and force behind legalized medical marijuana in Florida has the money and name recognition to allow him to wait until next year to launch a campaign if he decides to run.
"The campaigns never end. Why do we need 2 years instead of 5 months?" Morgan, 61, tweeted last week.
Graham hasn't pulled the trigger to kick off her campaign, but it's only a matter of time. She is a high-energy charmer who in 2014 unseated a Republican incumbent in a heavily Republican Panhandle district. At this point, she looks like the early frontrunner for the nomination.
Among the most intriguing questions about her gubernatorial candidacy is how big a price Graham will pay for having campaigned and served as a centrist, nonpartisan congresswoman.
In today's era of Donald Trump, Florida's once moribund, liberal Democratic base appears more fired up than perhaps ever before. It's no accident that the ever-cautious Sen. Bill Nelson supported the filibuster of Neil Gorsuch, rather than risk backlash from his Democratic base.
Back when she was representing Republican-leaning north Florida, Graham suggested her dad was further to the left than she was on gun control. She supported the Keystone XL pipeline, supported rolling back Dodd-Frank restrictions on Wall Street banks and worked hard not to allow Republicans to associate her with the Affordable Care Act.
"Both parties got it wrong," she said in a TV ad during her campaign against U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland in 2014. "Democrats bit off more than they could chew, while Republicans and congressman Southerland voted over 50 times to let insurance companies keep charging too much and denying you care."
A CQ Roll Call analysis in 2016 pegged Graham as the most independent-voting member of the Florida congressional delegation and the ninth-most independent member of either party among 435 members. That would normally be seen as the perfect selling point for a general election in swing-state Florida, but we don't yet have a solid sense of what the climate is for the Democratic primary electorate.
Normally, Florida Democrats shun the more reliably liberal choice. See Janet Reno (who lost to Bill McBride in 2002) or Nan Rich (who lost to Charlie Crist in 2014). This cycle may be different, with Trump helping rev up the Democratic base.
Gillum seems to have concluded his path to the nomination is to campaign as the second coming of Bernie Sanders. He has drawn financial support from liberal stalwarts including George Soros, Jane Fonda and Norman Lear.
At some point, Graham may want to remind liberal activists that Gillum actively supported the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, while she voted against fast-track authority when in Congress.
In this "invisible primary" stage, among the most important measures of candidates' viability in a state as large as Florida is how much money they can raise. Morgan and Levine both are capable of spending tens of millions of their own dollars, so the money question mainly applies to Gillum, Graham and King.
The latest financial reports have not been released, but Gillum's campaign said he has raised about $765,000 so far this year. That would be a more impressive haul if some of his supporters hadn't been talking about him raising at least $1 million in that period and had King — a virtual unknown in Florida politics — not reported raising about $500,000 in less time and also tossing in another $1 million of his own money.
Meanwhile, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, the frontrunner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, already has $6.8 million in his own political committee, though he has not formally entered the race.
Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected] Follow @adamsmithtimes.