Democratic Congresswoman Gwen Graham won’t run for re-election in her Northwest Florida district, preferring instead to explore a 2018 bid for governor.
The announcement, sent early Thursday in a video to Graham’s supporters, surprised few observers of the 2nd Congressional District, now much more Republican under the state’s new redistricting map than when Graham narrowly won her seat in 2014.
“Most everyone realized the redrawing of her district wasn’t conducive to her re-election,” University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus said.
The redrawn district, which stretches from Jackson County on the Georgia border to Levy County on the Gulf Coast, includes Panama City and part of the Tallahassee area. In 2012, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney beat Democratic President Barack Obama there by more than 30 percent of the vote. In 2010, in his first race for governor, Republican Rick Scott carried the district by 13.6 percent over Democrat Alex Sink.
“This is now a very heavily Republican district,” said Mary Thomas, former general counsel at the Florida Department of Elder Affairs and one of four contenders for the GOP nomination. “It’s one of the most conservative Republican districts in the entire country, and I think a Democrat cannot compete in this district now.”
Graham’s announcement follows a Monday ruling by a federal court, which struck down a challenge by Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown that could have altered the state’s congressional map yet again. The court rejected Brown’s argument that a candidate favored by African-Americans could not carry the reconfigured 5th Congressional District, which is next door to Graham’s 2nd Congressional District.
Brown’s district, which used to go from Jacksonville south to Orlando, now runs from Gadsden County in the west to Jacksonville in the east, absorbing many Democratic voters that had once been in Graham’s district.
Graham, who had been waiting for the federal court ruling to make her decision, touted her record in the video and said the changed map had contributed to her move.
“Unfortunately, the politicians, lobbyists and courts in Tallahassee have been at work, too, redrawing and dividing up North Florida and the district I represent, turning what was an example of what was a fair district into two partisan districts,” said Graham, the daughter of former U.S. Sen. and Gov. Bob Graham.
So far no Democrat has filed for the race, while the Republican primary has drawn national attention, endorsements and money.
Thomas was the first GOP candidate to file, in July, followed by Panama City surgeon and businessman Neal Dunn, who filed in August. As of the end of the fundraising quarter on Mar. 31, Dunn had $552,869 cash on hand, while Thomas had $378,700 after loaning her campaign $45,000.
Tallahassee attorney Ken Sukhia, who entered the Republican race in March, has $102,000, counting a $71,000 loan. Businessman Jeff Moran of Fort White, who filed in February, has $6,468 on hand after loaning himself $5,000.
Meanwhile, at least one Democrat — state Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda of Tallahassee — is still considering the race.
Facing term limits after eight years in the state House, Rehwinkel Vasilinda said her independent voting record could be a good match for the district, because she often crossed party lines. And if she decides to run, she said, it would be a “low-cost, all-positive, no-negative” campaign that could mitigate a late start.
Rehwinkel Vasilinda also said that if she took on the four Republicans — joined earlier this month by Libertarian Rob Lapham of Gulf County — she would be “the only one that’s actually been elected that I know of.”
Republican candidates dismissed that argument out of hand.
“This is a unique year, and I think that having held office is a potential liability,” Dunn told The News Service of Florida — especially, he said, given that Rehwinkel Vasilinda has voted with Democrats on many issues as well.
“I think it matters to the district in the sense that they’re likely to be more excited about a candidate who has not held elected office,” he said. “The folks who have been there haven’t done enough to preserve our American principles and way of life.”
Meanwhile, MacManus said Graham is well positioned for a statewide race.
“She has been in a swing district and operated as a swing-district Congress member who’s not just 100-percent partisan in their voting on key policy issues that affect Florida,” MacManus said.
The professor also noted that she’d seen Graham “actively working” Florida Democratic Party conventions for “several election cycles now” — a sign, MacManus said, of a future statewide candidate.
Graham had nearly $1.8 million in cash on hand as of Mar. 31, and her father for a political consultant.
“He’s often spoken to her — and to everyone else — about how being governor is the best job in politics,” MacManus said. “I’m sure she grew up hearing that.”