Gwen Graham: Rising Star or Shooting Star?

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By Jim Bleyer

Despite suffering post-mortem depression, Florida Democrats are hailing newly-minted Congresswoman Gwen Graham as the party’s future, if not its savior.

They have good reason to cheer.  She beat an incumbent, one of only two Democrats nationwide to accomplish the feat.  She won in a purplish-red district.  And she outpolled party standard bearer Charlie Crist in all 14 counties.

Dems, however, may want to temper their enthusiasm a couple of notches.  Graham outspent her rival, ex-mortician Steve Southerland, better than 3 to 2.  As former governor and senator Bob Graham’s daughter, she avoided squandering resources on boosting name recognition. Through established connections, assembling a seasoned campaign team went smoothly.

An out-of-touch Southerland alienated several key constituencies in his final term.  He voted against a bill expanding insurance for farmers. In a district rife with sympathetic state government workers, he voted for the federal government shutdown and then against rescinding it.

Worse, he drew the anger of sports and commercial fishermen and energized environmentalists by introducing a bill that would eviscerate the Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement of the Clean Water Act.  Unlike Southerland’s former clients, the legislation remains very much alive.  It passed the House and awaits action in the Senate.

The robust funding, a celebrated name, and Southerland’s self-destruction on important district issues added up to a wafer-thin 1.13 percentage point victory.  Graham ran only three points ahead of 2012 challenger Al Lawson who had none of her advantages.

Since the election, Graham has staked out the middle ground: opposing Nancy Pelosi as her party’s leader, promising bipartisanship, and declaring her vote as “not automatic.”

Republicans are well aware of Graham’s potential as a statewide candidate.  Don’t look for the leadership to hand her high-profile committee assignments.  Bills with her name as the sponsor or co-sponsor might find tough sledding.  She already has cast a vote on the losing side within her own party.

Congressional freshmen face formidable challenges.  For Graham, if she aspires for her win to be more than symbolic and inspirational, they are even more daunting.

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