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  1. Florida Politics

How first-time candidate Gwen Graham defeated a GOP incumbent

Democratic challenger Gwen Graham responds during a debate with Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland at Florida State University on Oct. 15. Graham went on to win the 2nd Congressional District seat.
Published Nov. 8, 2014

In June, when most congressional candidates were focused on building campaigns or dealing with primary opponents, Gwen Graham made the call to go up on TV.

"I know it's frustrating, but we've all had it up to here with Congress," the Democrat said, wearing a royal blue button-down and sitting in a cozy den, family pictures behind her. "I'm Gwen Graham. I'm a wife and a working mom."

She had the North Florida airwaves to herself — for two months — defining herself before Republicans could. It was one of a number of smart moves her campaign made and, in hindsight, one of the costly mistakes committed by U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Panama City, whom Graham narrowly defeated Tuesday.

Her victory was one of only a few highlights for Democrats nationally, and it vaults Graham to the top of a barren Democratic bench in Florida.

Graham raised more money than Southerland and, observers on both sides say, outhustled him. Steve Schale, a strategist who helped with the campaign, said at one point last year he worried she was wearing herself thin and told Graham's father, Bob Graham, the former governor and senator.

The next day Schale got a text message from the candidate. "It read like, 'Don't you ever go to my dad and tell him I need a rest,' " Schale recalled Thursday.

Graham also had a focused message, stressing local values — "The North Florida way," as her ads often said — and not allowing herself to be boxed in as a Democrat, lightly criticizing President Barack Obama over his response to ISIS and saying the Affordable Care Act needed changes.

Southerland was his own enemy. He had built up an opposition book worth of gaffes, from suggesting the $174,000 congressional salary wasn't that much to a "lingerie shower" comment in defense of his all-male fundraiser.

The Republican brought in some big names, including Sen. Marco Rubio, but they only reinforced the Washington image. Graham had Jimmy Buffett and former President Bill Clinton, who showed up for a rally in late October at Florida A&M.

Her father — and the family name — was an obvious asset.

In the end, Graham's team saved itself by building a huge advantage in Leon and Gadsden counties, Democratic strongholds. She got 81,605 votes there vs. 42,380 for Southerland. He did well in Bay County, as expected, but in the small counties, Graham pulled just enough support to prevent a landslide.

"If you move 50 or 100 people, it adds up in a close race," said Schale, who credited Graham's team, which included campaign manager Julia Gill Woodward.

"Our field director Jenn Whitcomb and her team kicked butt," said Eric Jotkoff, another adviser.

Final tally: 125,139 votes for Graham, 122,945 for Southerland — 50.44 percent to 49.56 percent.

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