Can Gwen Graham end GOP dominance in Florida’s governor race?

The former congresswoman is the frontrunner for Democrats in 2018, but the race is unpredictable and wide open.
Florida gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham, center, speaks during a private fundraiser at a Panama City home on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017. Graham spoke and answered questions from supporters during the fundraiser. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Florida gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham, center, speaks during a private fundraiser at a Panama City home on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017. Graham spoke and answered questions from supporters during the fundraiser. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Aug. 31, 2017|Updated Aug. 31, 2017

LYNN HAVEN — Gwen Graham is a serial hugger.

She roams auditoriums, parades and community gatherings, throwing her arms around acquaintances, friends, strangers, even uncomfortable reporters.

The other day near Panama City, after a campaign “workday” at Mosley High School, the relentlessly upbeat Graham could scarcely contain her exuberance when Master Sgt. Beth Piccolo, a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps instructor, mentioned to Graham that she considers empathy an important leadership trait.

“Yes!” said Graham, 54, as if the instructor were reading her mind, then went in for a bear hug. “Empathy and love! We need people in leadership who have empathy and love and integrity so that people want to follow you.”

The former congresswoman kicked off her 2018 campaign four months ago, but started laying the groundwork to become Florida’s first female governor far earlier, as state legislators re-drew the boundaries of her Republican-leaning Tallahassee district into one next to impossible for any Democrat to win. Even former Sen. Bob Graham’s daughter.

She has a lot of what it takes to win a statewide race: a knack for personally connecting with voters, a track record of winning over people skeptical of Democrats, and a top-notch campaign team familiar with Florida’s complexities.

But nothing is predictable in the volatile Donald Trump political era, and Graham faces the first crowded and competitive Democratic gubernatorial primary in decades.

She may be the frontrunner, but the race is wide open.

• • •

In 2014, Graham’s gregarious charm and message of common-sense bipartisanship helped unseat a Republican congressman in a heavily Republican area of north Florida during a GOP wave election. Democrat Charlie Crist ran for governor that year, and she outperformed him by 3 percentage points in liberal Leon County and more than 7 in conservative Bay County.

Related: In North Florida, a barn-burner of a race for Congress

Even before her swearing-in, beleaguered Florida Democrats starting talking her up as a leading candidate for governor or U.S. Senate.

“Anyone who meets her — not necessarily the giant crowds, but where they get to speak with her — they fall in love with her because she’s so genuine,” said Shannon Love a 30-year-old Democratic activist in St. Petersburg who leads the Pinellas Young Democrats.

Graham is not scaring away potential primary rivals, let alone dominating the field. An automated poll released the last week in August by Florida Atlantic University’s Business and Economics Polling Initiative found Orlando-area personal injury lawyer John Morgan leading among registered Democrats with 19 percent support, followed by Graham with 14 percent, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum with 9 percent, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine 8 percent and Winter Park businessman Chris King with 4 percent.

And some of Graham’s strengths could turn into liabilities in an unconventional election cycle.

Take Graham’s knack for sticking scrupulously to her message, which differs little from the past five unsuccessful Democratic nominees for Florida governor: Less reliance on high-stakes school testing and privatizing education, more emphasis on creating better-paying jobs and protecting the environment. She is not a candidate prone to gaffes or having to walk back comments, but her feel-good bromides can make her sound like just another cautious politician.

“My heart is in this. I am committed to being the governor that works hard for the people of Florida from one end of Florida to the other. And that connection that I have is a wonderful opportunity to be a governor that people feel really positive about,” she said.

Asked what lessons she learned from Hillary Clinton’s loss to Trump, Graham paused several beats before answering: “What I’m focused on is my passion for this, my passion for public service and being a unifier. Not focusing on what divides us but wanting the best for every Floridian.”

Then there is that famous last name. Bob Graham, 80, hasn’t been on a ballot in Florida since 1998, but the former governor and senator is fondly remembered in much of the state and remains an icon among Florida Democrats. He frequently campaigns alongside his daughter, as he did in Panama City.

Related: For Graham family, it may be time for another of them to run for Florida governor

But even as her last name opens doors and checkbooks and generates considerable goodwill, it also shapes Graham’s image as part of the political establishment.

“One of the reasons why Florida did not go for Hillary Clinton is because of that dynasty issue. Americans are not interested in dynasties right now,” said Mike Fox, a Democratic activist in Pinellas County who has contributed to Gillum’s campaign and is skeptical about Graham’s ability to win. “People are so polarized and so much looking for something different and new.”

New is part of what Graham is campaigning on.

“I’m not a career politician,” she said, while munching on a chicken salad sandwich in Mosley High’s cafeteria. “That is something people absolutely recognize, that if you have real life experiences, you bring a much broader ability to understand what needs to be done than if you’ve been in politics your whole life.”

• • •

Among the Democrats running or flirting with running for governor, Bob and Adele Graham’s oldest daughter has the most experience in politics. She’s already lived in the Governor’s Mansion.

Born and raised in Miami Lakes, Gwen Graham moved to Tallahassee and attended Leon High School after her father become governor in 1979. She graduated in 1980, earned her bachelor’s at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1984 and her law degree from American University in 1988. She worked three years in a Washington law firm specializing in energy and environmental law before moving back to Tallahassee to start a family with former Clearwater attorney Mark Logan.

She spent the 1990s focused on her three children, becoming a PTA leader and later going to work for the Leon County School board, becoming its chief negotiator.

“She had that Type A personality, but also a real human touch,” recounted Iris Wilson, who was principal of the diverse Kate Sullivan Elementary when Graham was PTA president. “She did an amazing job making everybody feel welcomed and part of the PTA.”

In 2003, Graham threw herself into her father’s presidential bid, campaigning for him in Iowa and New Hampshire. When that ended earlier than expected, she went to work for then-frontrunner Howard Dean. That also failed to take off, and she wound up working at the Democratic National Committee to help John Kerry try to unseat President George W. Bush.

Graham took the leap herself in 2013, deciding to take on Republican Steve Southerland in a district that twice voted heavily against Barack Obama. Graham campaigned as a “very conservative Democrat,” distancing herself from Obama and Nancy Pelosi and touting her commitment to “The North Florida Way,” by which she meant putting her district and country before rigid ideology or party loyalty. She emerged quickly as a standout candidate among Democrats running nationally, a top money-raiser and natural charmer on the campaign trail who clearly adored mixing it up with voters

“From from the first day of the campaign, she brought this energy,” marveled her campaign manager Julia Gill Woodward, who, like others who work with Graham, talk of her like a close family member.

“Every day, she said, was a pure joy. She just has this work ethic and drive that is unmatched. She never complained, never hesitated. She just feeds off people, and that’s something you either have or you don’t have. She has it times 10,” said Woodward, who is managing Graham’s campaign this time, too.

Other leaders of her congressional campaign are working with her again, including media consultant Rich Davis and pollster John Anzalone.

Steve Schale, another former and current senior adviser, said often his first text message of the day would come from her at dawn, and the last one from her late at night. At one point he reached out to Sen. Graham because he worried Gwen was working herself too hard and hoped her father would talk to her.

“I got a phone call from her at about 1 o’clock in the morning, chewing me out for going to her dad about her work ethic,” Schale recounted with a chuckle. “At the end of the day, she’s less worried about the number of hours she put in than she might have missed something.”

Some of her more conservative votes — supporting the Keystone XL Pipeline and voting against the Iran nuclear deal — have drawn criticism among some Democrats as she’s turned her sights to a statewide campaign. Where some people see a relatable PTA mom promising to shake up the status quo in Tallahassee, others see yet another centrist establishment politician.

“Certainly, some number of our troops really want someone with more progressive leanings,” said Hillsborough Democratic Chairman Ione Townsend, a Graham fan. “There are progressive purists who are not tolerant of some of her votes and taking the district that she represented into account.”

• • •

In this early phase of the race, Graham spends much of her time privately raising money, but about twice a month she makes sure to participate in a workday. Bob Graham started the practice more than 40 years ago, and father and daughter call them invaluable tools to better understanding the state and what matters to Floridians.

“Some people would argue, ‘Well you should be holed up in a room with a phone to your ear raising money all day long.’ I’m not willing to forgo a day like today,” Graham said during her visit to Mosley High. “Days like today are critically important to me understanding how I as governor can better serve the public education system. It gives me real life experiences.”

Graham is favored to win the Democratic nomination, but she will have to work harder than any Democrat in decades.

Multi-millionaire Levine has raised more money — largely his own —without even announcing his candidacy. Gillum, despite being wounded by an ongoing FBI investigation into Tallahassee city government, keeps drawing significant endorsements. Newcomer King remains a credible rival, and Morgan would be a game-changer and probably the immediate favorite if he jumped in.

Graham has raised more than $3 million to date, including $1.2 million she rolled over from her congressional account. 

At the Lynn Haven high school, she said she is meeting her money-raising targets and recounted how Republican frontrunner Adam Putnam looked perturbed and surprised by all the hugs and enthusiasm she generated recently when both marched in the annual Possum Festival Parade in north Florida.

Hug by hug, workday by workday, she intends to make it back into the Governor’s Mansion.

“I believe with all my heart and the responses that I receive across the state of Florida,” she said, “that this is exactly what I was meant to do so that I can get our state back on the right path again.”

Times data reporter Eli Murray contributed to this report.