Bob Graham, the popular former governor and long-time U.S.
senator, features prominently in his daughter's challenge to a Tea
Party conservative, one of the nation's most closely watched races
that is offering Democrats a rare chance to unseat a southern
Republican in the U.S. Congress.
Father and daughter appear together in televised ads introducing the
first-time political candidate, who says: "I'm Gwen Graham, and Dad
and I approved this message."
"People understand what a Graham Democrat is," Gwen Graham said in
an interview, highlighting her father's legacy as a hard worker and
consensus builder in nearly four decades in office.
"That is what people want to get back to," she said. "They know that
I am someone they can trust."
The enduring appeal of the Graham name has surprised pundits and
raised Democratic chances in a politically divided district, testing
the party's ability to reconnect with traditional, white southern
voters who have largely abandoned its national ticket.
Gwen Graham, with $2.6 million in campaign funding, has outraised
incumbent U.S. Representative Steve Southerland, a Panama City
funeral home owner in his second term in office.
Despite strong headwinds favoring Republicans in the midterm
elections, the Washington-based Cook Political Report recently
switched the race from "lean Republican" to "toss-up."
"This is really the only race in the country where a Democratic
challenger has made significant progress," said David Wasserman,
Cook's U.S. House editor, noting that early polls show a tight race,
shifting his initial skepticism of Graham's chances in the
conservative Florida Panhandle.
"If Graham wins, the story really is that candidates still do
matter," he said.
Graham, a 51-year-old-lawyer and mother of three, paints herself as
an independent voice for "the North Florida Way." She says
implementation of the Democratic party's signature healthcare
reforms was a disaster, but she wants to fix rather than repeal the
Affordable Care Act.
"People want someone who is putting aside the partisanship and doing
the right thing for them," she said.
She and her father, who chaired the Senate Select Committee on
Intelligence and ran for president before retiring in 2005, disagree
on gun control issues. Graham said her husband, a lawyer working for
state law enforcement, has influenced her support of gun ownership
BLUE DOG BATTLEGROUND
Graham spent much of her childhood in the district while her father
served in the state capital in Tallahassee. She still lives in the
district's liberal anchor, packed with college students and black
The 14-county district stretches west to Panama City, a conservative
stronghold along a stretch of oceanfront some call the Redneck
The small towns in between should decide the race, experts say. This
is where Graham must win back so-called blue dog Democrats - white
southern voters who now favor conservatives.
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Her father did well with the group, which his supporters dubbed
"Graham Crackers," said Lance deHaven-Smith, a political science
professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee.
is trying to resurrect that coalition among liberal Democrats and
conservative blue dog Democrats, but the question is, Can she do
it?" he said. "I think it's an uphill battle."
Both national parties already are airing political ads in a district
that has been trending Republican in national races, but where
voters continue to support some moderate Democrats.
Southerland's campaign is highlighting Graham's ties to President
Barack Obama and fellow Democrat Nancy Pelosi, the House minority
leader, both of whom are unpopular in the district.
An attack ad launched this month by National Republican
Congressional Committee, which reserved $900,000 for the race, took
up that theme.
"We recognize Senator Grahamís record, but this race is not about
Bob Graham," said Southerland spokesman Matt McCullough. "Steve has
got a record of fighting for this district."
Yet Bob Graham, 77, who plans to temporarily relocate to north
Florida to support his daughter, is hard to ignore on the campaign
His daughter has revived his trademark workdays, toiling along
typical residents at a barbershop, a food truck and a goat farm.
On the campaign trail earlier this month, father and daughter shared
a canoe down the Apalachicola River, with Gwen Graham steering in
The next day, the extended Graham family passed out white balloons
in the Wausau Possum Festival parade. At the event's colorful
auction, Gwen Graham followed a local political tradition of holding
up a prized possum on the stage.
During the eight-day "Grilling with the Grahams" campaign tour, her
father dished barbecue and mingled with voters in a different towns.
"I happen to have the best role model in my father," Gwen Graham
said. "He is really, really proud to see me running."
(Editing by Leslie Adler)
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