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

U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, left, and Democrat Gwen Graham square off during a debate at Florida State University on Oct. 15.
U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, left, and Democrat Gwen Graham square off during a debate at Florida State University on Oct. 15.
Published Oct. 26, 2014

ALTHA — To find one of the most vulnerable Republican congressmen in America, we drove through the North Florida woodlands halfway between Panama City and Tallahassee, turned at a cotton field, and then drove more than a mile down a dirt road to Grover Davis' farm in the town of Altha, population 500 or so.

There, U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Panama City, stood atop a giant stack of canned baked beans, his makeshift stage. He was on a tear.

"Everybody's weighing in on this race! Bill Maher — bless his heart — he's weighed in. Al Sharpton's weighed in," Southerland said, ticking off assorted liberals from Jerry Springer to Nancy Pelosi who have donated money to his Democratic challenger. "All the media, let me tell you, they drive me insane. They want to convince the world that they know the 14 counties of Florida's 2nd Congressional District better than you do."

Southerland, 49, is a strapping and gregarious fourth-generation North Florida native with a simple, underlying campaign message that he thinks will help him withstand perhaps the strongest Democratic House challenger in the country: I'm one of you.

His challenger is Gwen Graham, an equally gregarious first-time candidate but no political rookie. Graham, 51, is a lawyer, a Leon County school administrator and the oldest daughter of Bob Graham, the popular former governor and U.S. senator. Her underlying message: Congress is broken and needs less rigid, combative ideology and more bipartisanship.

Political handicappers see the race as a toss-up, which says something about Graham's appeal considering the district twice voted heavily against Barack Obama and Southerland unseated seven-term Democrat Alan Boyd in 2010 by 13 percentage points after Boyd voted for the Affordable Care Act. In an election year where the question is how much ground the GOP will gain, Graham has the distinction of being the Democratic challenger best positioned to unseat an incumbent Republican House member not currently under indictment.

But as close as she is to unpicking the political lock of a tough district, Graham's campaign rhetoric should hardly warm the hearts of her party leaders in Washington.

"I am not Nancy Pelosi. Neither am I Barack Obama or Harry Reid," she assured audience members at a recent Tiger Bay Club meeting in Tallahassee. "I'm Gwen Graham, and I am going to go to Washington and represent this district so very well."

Asked whether she would like President Obama to campaign for her, Graham said how pleased she would be to campaign alongside Bill Clinton, who in fact is coming to Tallahassee to campaign with her Sunday.

And when a TV interviewer in Tallahassee recently described her as a progressive female, she promptly told him the only accurate part of that description is her being a woman. She calls herself a "very conservative Democrat," which does not exactly fit the profile of someone who worked on the Howard Dean and John Kerry presidential campaigns, as she did.

Her biggest policy difference with her father? She had greater appreciation for gun rights, she suggested, an answer well suited to North Florida.

• • •

The Big Bend district — covering more than 8,600 square miles stretching from the Republican mega stronghold of Panama City and Bay County on the west, past Tallahassee, which passes for a bastion of liberalism on the eastern end — is among the most politically polarized in the country. It is home, of course, to the state capital, loaded with public employees and union members, as well as Gadsden County, the state's only majority African-American county. At the same time, much of the district is culturally part of the Deep South and conservative. Obama lost District 2, but so did Rick Scott and even Jeb Bush.

No district in the state is home to more native Floridians. Southerland, a funeral home owner who grew up in Panama City, knows what it means to pay off logging machinery at John Deere or baptize children in St. Andrews Bay. He is convinced his connection to the district will overcome even a better funded charmer with a gold-plated political name.

Along with the cities of Tallahassee and Panama City, the district is largely rural and southern. It includes tomato farmers and loggers, gulf fisherman and both the annual Wausau Possum Festival and Sopchoppy Worm Gruntin' Festival. It was home to former Gov. John Milton, who killed himself in 1865 out of despair when the Confederacy was poised to surrender.

"A lot of it is Southern Alabama — born again, bathed in the blood of the lamb, cried when Old Yeller died," said longtime Republican strategist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, who supports Graham but cautions that nobody should underestimate Southerland.

"He's a third-generation funeral director, and when you've buried enough people, and held their hands, and grieved with them, you are part of the fabric of the community."

Indeed, Southerland did not look especially vulnerable last week in Altha, when several hundred people showed up for a fish fry despite tornado warnings, torrential rain and wind so fierce it toppled tents erected for the event.

"She may be a perfectly nice lady, but she's not from here. She doesn't share our values," said state Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, suggesting Graham is more a product of South Florida than North Florida.

Graham, born in South Florida, began spending part of the year in Tallahassee at age 3 when her father first joined the Legislature and moved there full time at 15, when he was elected governor.

"There is a rhythm to North and Northwest Florida, and you either know it or you don't. You can't fake it," Southerland said.

"She's not one of us," he added, saying that even "her daddy" needed to put Jackson County cattle rancher Wayne Mixson on his ticket to garner enough North Florida credibility to win the governor's race in 1978.

• • •

Bob Graham still has a lot of credibility in the area.

"I don't know much about her, but I liked her father and hope some of that rubbed off on her," said 35-year-old Democrat Adam Richards outside the Blounts­town Piggly Wiggly.

Dowling Parish, Calhoun County's building official and a Southerland supporter, said the Graham name still has appeal, but he hears Gwen Graham is "just another Nancy Pelosi."

He noted that she does not use the last name of her husband (Stephen Hurm, a general counsel for Florida's Department of Highway Safety & Motor Vehicles): "I think she's just running on her daddy's name."

Graham is sensitive about that charge and insists she never would have run if she did not think she was ready in her own right. "The North Florida Way" is her campaign slogan.

"To me it means the opposite of what Congress has come to represent. It means being able to work together, and give it all, and find solutions to the challenges we see and help one another," she said in an interview. "Fixing Washington, I believe, is going to take electing people who are positive, optimistic, glass half-full people who don't care what party someone's in. … Steve Southerland voted twice to shut the government down. He voted to default on our debt. I mean, there's no part of that that's in the best interest of our country."

Graham, who hugs every other person she sees, has emerged as a disciplined and polished candidate. Steve Schale, a Democratic consultant working on her campaign, said she has a knack for connecting and empathizing with people through her own experiences: a career woman turned stay-at-home mother who went through a divorce and single parenthood before remarrying.

"She comes from a political family, of course, but she really does approach things from a very practical point of view," Schale said. "I admire Bob Graham so much, but in some ways she's a more natural and comfortable politician because she can relate to people better."

• • •

Southerland has a knack for giving ammunition to his critics.

In 2011, he suggested his congressional salary — $174,000, and roughly four times the median household income in the district — was not great considering the sacrifices involved. More recently, his campaign sent invitations to an all-male fundraiser akin to "the 12th century with King Arthur's Round Table."

"Tell the Misses not to wait up," the invitation read, "because the after-dinner whiskey and cigars will be smooth & the issues to discuss are many."

When the Tampa Bay Times asked him about it last month, Southerland did not help himself: "Listen, has Gwen Graham ever been to a lingerie shower? Ask her. And how many men were there?"

Graham, the Democrats, and much of the national media ridiculed him over that, but Southerland is confident his constituents will have the last laugh.

"I need you to vote. I need your family to vote. I need your neighbors to vote. I need your Sunday school teachers to vote. I need those you hunt with, you fish with, you play bridge with to vote," he exhorted the crowd gathered inside a sprawling barn in Altha. "If our people vote, it's over — it's over. If they don't? There could be trouble."

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet and Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Adam C. Smith at Follow @adamsmithtimes.