TALLAHASSEE — U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham set off the first round of Florida's next election battle Thursday when she announced that she won't seek reelection to Congress but "is seriously considering" seeking the Democratic nomination for governor in 2018.
Graham, of Tallahassee, is in her first term in Congress but she faced a tough re-election after her North Florida seat was reconfigured to be less favorable for Democrats under a court-ordered redistricting plan.
"State government is just dysfunctional, and this causes me to rethink how I can best serve the people of North Florida and our state," Graham said in a news release and two-minute video sent to supporters. "Floridians are hungry for new leadership, and I'm so excited to tell you first I'm seriously considering running for governor in 2018."
Graham criticized the new map for dividing her district into "two partisan districts," and she promised to bring "common sense back to Tallahassee."
Graham's announcement is the start of what is expected to be a hard-fought race to replace Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, who will retire in 2018 because of term limits. Republicans considering the 2018 race include Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, whose political action committee raised more than $4.3 million in one year. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio has also been rumored to be considering seeking the nomination, although he denied that a few days after he lost the Florida presidential primary.
As the daughter of former Democratic U.S. Sen. and Gov. Bob Graham, Graham has been considered a rising star in the Democratic Party since she defeated incumbent Republican Congressman Steve Southerland in the Panhandle-based district in 2014. Her campaign received heavy support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which targeted the district.
Graham had been considered a possible candidate for the neighboring African-American majority seat in North Florida, Congressional District 5, but those prospects narrowed when U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown announced Wednesday that she would run for re-election to the seat, which includes Brown's stronghold of Jacksonville.
If Graham continues with her bid for governor, she will likely face a primary.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn told the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday he is exploring a run for the Democratic nomination for governor but will not make a decision until after the presidential election. Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, a millionaire businessman who has also been rumored to be eyeing the Democratic nomination, told the Herald Thursday that he is focused on being mayor. And state Sen. Jeremy Ring of Margate said that he has also begun an exploratory campaign but will not make a decision until next year.
"Yes, I'm considering it, but no one is paying attention. No one should be paying attention," said Ring, a former Yahoo executive who now holds investments in several businesses. He said if he were to run, it would "not be as a state senator trying to move up the ladder but as part of the team that helped build Yahoo who happened to be a state senator."
Steve Schale, who was the senior adviser to Graham's congressional campaign, said Graham had every intention of running for re-election and was genuinely disappointed in the outcome of redistricting. Her announcement was an effort to be "transparent and direct" with her constituents while she serves out the remainder of her term, he said.
"She thought it was important as part of this to end the speculation, but does that mean she's made a final decision to run? No," Schale said. "She's definitely very serious about it."
Graham's announcement was considered by Democratic operatives to be more than a trial balloon but a sign that she was prepared to end speculation and control the message.
"The timing is perfect," said Steve Vancore a Democratic political consultant unaffiliated with any of the Democratic hopefuls. "After the court ruling, she had become the big question and she was smart to get ahead of it with mostly clear answers."
Screven Watson, another Democratic consultant who also is unaffiliated, said he believes Graham is "an immediate force to be reckoned with."
"The reality is, more women vote in this state than men — it can be as high as a 10 percent difference in some areas — so gender matters," Watson said.
Graham, 53, was born in Miami Lakes but moved to Tallahassee in 1978 when her father was elected governor. She graduated from Tallahassee's Leon High School in 1980, received her bachelor's degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1984 and her law degree from American University's Washington College of Law in 1988.
There has not been a successful candidate for governor from North Florida since Reubin Askew in 1970, but Watson said Graham's record of defeating Southerland, her family name, and her congressional record as a moderate, will be an asset.
"If she can win up here and beat a Republican incumbent, she can make the argument she can win statewide," he said.
South Florida remains the stronghold for Democratic votes and, in the past two races for governor, the Democratic candidates — Alex Sink and Charlie Crist — failed to produce a high enough turnout, helping deliver the race to the better-financed multimillionaire Scott.
Graham would have to spend time in South Florida to increase her name recognition among average voters.
"I think she is known in the political world in South Florida but not the general public," said Mitch Ceasar, former longtime Broward Democratic party chairman.
But both Buckhorn and Ring were quick to criticize Graham's announcement.
"I can't imagine that I would make a decision prior to the presidential election," Buckhorn said. "I think it really is unfair for Secretary Clinton and Patrick Murphy to have a governor's race interjected into this cycle. It's competition for money. It's competition for attention. It's competition that they don't need."
He said if he got in the race he would emphasize his record "creating jobs and creating opportunities" in a city that now has "one of the hottest real estate markets in the country." His proven record is "not hyperbole," he added. "It's not rhetoric. It's not, you know, resolutions in the congressional record."
Buckhorn also emphasized the importance of the Tampa Bay region as having 22 percent of the Democratic primary vote and "the biggest media market in the state."
Ring blasted Graham's criticism of the Legislature, suggesting that she said in the video that lawmakers were to blame for the redistricting map. He called that "extraordinarily misleading" since the courts ordered the redraw of the map. "If you were to do a 'pants on fire' thing, it would be an inferno," he said, referring to PolitiFact Florida's rating system.
Graham's challenge in a statewide Democratic primary would be explaining some right-leaning votes she took in her conservative district including in favor of the Keystone pipeline, rolling back Dodd Frank regulations of Wall Street, and in support of tougher immigration restrictions for Syrian refugees.
Graham had about $1.8 million cash on hand in her congressional account as of the end of March, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
According to financial disclosures filed with the U.S. House of Representatives, Graham's net worth in 2014 — the most recent date available — ranged between $4.7 million and $25.7 million. Most of that income came through an individual investment in The Graham Companies, where she serves as a director.
Graham notes that her earned income includes "spouse salary." Her husband, Stephen D. Hurm, works as general counsel for the Florida Department of Highway Safety & Motor Vehicles. According to state records, he makes $109,000 annually.
Times staff writer Richard Danielson and Miami Herald staff writers Kristen M. Clark and Joey Flechas contributed. Contact Mary Ellen Klas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.