Looking Ahead To The Democratic Scramble For Governor

Guest Column

By Barry Edwards

Despite the 2018 general election being well over two years away, Congresswoman Gwen Graham’s announcement that she would not seek reelection, and publicly acknowledging her interest in the governor’s race, her  preannouncement announcement has sent the first domino tumbling in what will be a long, drawn out, and expensive battle to succeed Gov. Rick Scott.

With the flames of the 2016 presidential burning bright and hot, we look ahead to profile the candidates that Democrats hope can end their two decades in the wilderness of Florida politics and win back the Governor’s Mansion in 2018.

Rep. Gwen Graham (Tallahassee, U.S. Congresswoman)

The North Florida Scion

In the 2014 Republican wave, there were only two Democrats nationally to score wins over incumbent House Republicans: Brad Ashford in Nebraska and Gwen Graham in the recently-obliterated-by-redistricting panhandle seat formerly held by Republican Steve Southerland. The Fair Districts lawsuit that mandated a complete overhaul of Florida’s congressional map forced Graham from a Republican-leaning seat into an overwhelmingly Republican seat, and seemingly accelerated her decision on 2018.

The Graham name is royalty to Florida Democrats, evoking memories of an era in which their party held total control of state government. Graham the Younger is in many ways a throwback to old style Florida Dems like her popular father, former Governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham. She’s proven herself a winner by chipping  away at Republican margins in areas a Democrat can’t ’t win outright —critical for a Democrat running statewide in Florida— with her affable personality, moderate demeanor, and tenacious campaigning style. Questions remain, however, as to how her down-home, nostalgic “North Florida Way” would export to the rest of the state in a Democratic primary.

Running a statewide campaign out of Tallahassee also poses a challenge because the panhandle is isolated from the state’s major media outlets. Graham may find that her name ID outside the panhandle to be far lower than she’d expect, despite being a rising star among activist Democrats and the daughter of a iconic former governor. Her father, however, was last on a statewide ballot in 1998 when he easily won re-election to the U.S Senate. That was the same year in which Democrats would cede the governorship they’ve yet to regain. Earned media may be tough to come by in a race against candidates from big media markets like Tampa Bay and Miami.

Despite her meteoric rise, a lack of experience may become a major point of contention. Two years in Congress in a minority party may be less compelling to voters than multiple terms as the mayor of a major city. Graham’s short stint in the House also includes votes that have caused consternation among some movement progressives, notably voting in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline and for a bill slowing the process for Syrian’s seeking refugee relocation in the United States.

Bob Buckhorn (Tampa, Mayor)

The Big City Mayor with Swagger

Since his first day on the job as mayor of Florida’s third-largest city, many have seen it as a foregone conclusion that Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn would seek statewide office. Buckhorn will seek to articulate a compelling narrative about Tampa’s economic resurgence (boosted by national tailwinds) after this west-central Florida city like the rest of Florida was hit hard by the housing crisis of the late 2000s. His gregarious personality has made him a media staple in a region that is not just in the heart of the critical I-4 Corridor, but is home to the state’s most widely-circulated newspaper, the influential Tampa Bay Times.

Though his best asset may be his straight-shooting, off-the-cuff style, it can also lead to occasional bouts of Bidenesque gaffs. Love him or hate him, Buckhorn oozes positivity.  He never misses a chance to share his city’s story, and would be more than eager to counter Gwen Graham’s “North Florida Way” with the Tampa Bay Way. He cruised to re-election last year with only write-in opposition, garnering nearly 100 percent of the vote, which suggests consensus on his leadership.

His second term, however, hit early bumps after front page stories in the Times about the police disproportionately targeting African Americans for minor bicycle violations. This development prompted Buckhorn to ask the Department of Justice to investigate the Tampa Police Department’s procedure in such cases.  The DOJ report said there was no positive benefit to the program, and Buckhorn created a citizens’ review board to provide greater public oversight over city police. The City Council’s already frosty relationship with Buckhorn cooled even further over disputes about the scope of the board’s powers and the extent of council’s involvement. African American Councilman Frank Reddick, in particular, has found himself at odds with Buckhorn, leaving open to question the Mayor’s once strong relationship with Tampa’s black community. Whether that fissure is real or not remains to be seen, but it’s likely that Buckhorn’s opponents would use the issue to drive a wedge between him and black voters.

Buckhorn has been vocal in support of the LGBT community in the wake of laws legalizing discrimination in North Carolina and Mississippi, openly encouraging companies to leave those states for Tampa, a city he is quick to tout as tolerant and accepting. He also engaged in high profile outreach and support of Tampa’s Muslim community on the heels of several incidents of hateful intimidation against Tampa Muslims.

Like Graham, Buckhorn is a certifiably mainstream New Democrat with a pro-economic development platform (and track record) tailor made for a general election. Also like Graham, this has alienated him from some of the more vocal activist liberals who accuse him of not doing enough to help elect Charlie Crist in the 2014 governor’s race and appearing on a Pam Bondi fundraising invitation.  The Mayor has also posted anemic fundraising for his political committee compared to likely Republican candidate Adam Putnam, state Agriculture Commissioner, leading some to speculate how committed Buckhorn is to pulling the trigger on a run. Many of Buckhorn’s major contributors who have supported him in a non-partisan race in an overwhelmingly Democratic city will likely back a Republican like Putnam in a partisan race.

Recent rumors have circulated that party leaders have approached Buckhorn about running for CFO rather than governor, but the track record of recent cabinet races, where Republicans tend to win 60-40 with the notable exception of Alex Sink’s victory in the 2006 Democratic wave, suggest its’ governor or bust for statewide Democrats.

 Philip Levine (Miami Beach, Mayor)

The South Florida Climate Crusader

A candidate as wealthy and well-connected as multimillionaire entrepreneur and Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine is a hot commodity for Democrats in a state where calling the Democratic Party’s fundraising “anemic” could be considered a tremendous compliment. Levine has gained a reputation as a developer darling and prodigious fundraiser, along with having the advantage of being a high profile figure in South Florida, home to a large chunk of the state’s Democratic vote. Levine’s profile has been steadily increasing over the last several years as he has evolved into a crusader for climate change mitigation, an issue near and dear to the hearts of most Florida Democrats.  Almost any media coverage of South Florida’s susceptibility to climate change includes a quote from or interview with Levine. His wealth alone will endear him to party leaders and may already put him at an advantage in the invisible primary. He made no secret of palling around with the Victory Group’s heavy (GOP) hitter Adam Goodman in Cuba during the President’s visit to Havana.

Charlie Crist (St. Petersburg, Former Governor, Future Congressman)

The Wildcard

Time truly is a flat circle. No list of potential candidates for statewide office in Florida would be complete without Charlie Crist, who is poised to sail to victory in the redrawn 13th Congressional District with only token opposition.  Polls showed the well-known Crist easily beating primary opponent Eric Lynn, who has now opted for a state House run, and former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker’s decision to pass on running for this Democratic-leaning seat all but assures Crist will face only nominal Republican opposition in November.  The former governor’s non-denial-denial of interest recently (stating to a Times reporter that “nothing was on his radar,” which of course means his radar is scanning) in once again seeking higher office in the future and his reputation for continuously seeking the adoration of the campaign spotlight put him in the conversation. Those who have followed Governor Crist’s career are also highly skeptical of his ability to remain satisfied as one member of a body of 435, particularly in a minority party. Given that Crist has never once run for reelection to anything besides the state Senate (once) in a multi-decade career in elective office, will he be able to pass up a chance to absolve back to back statewide election defeats, including losing an eminently winnable gubernatorial race against Rick Scott in 2014? Crist fatigue may be irreversible outside his native St. Petersburg, as his trial balloon for a U.S. Senate run this cycle was burst by a tsunami of sharply negative coverage from both the state and national media. But Charlies’ sunny optimism has converted many voters before and could do so again.

The biggest loser in a multi-way race involving Charlie Crist would undoubtedly be Buckhorn, who would stand little chance at winning a statewide primary if forced to split the large Tampa Bay vote with another major Tampa Bay centered candidate.

Jeremy Ring (Margate, Former State Senator)

Who?

For reasons unbeknownst to all but himself, former state senator and former Yahoo executive Jeremy Ring took the opportunity to respond to the media buzz created by Gwen Graham’s non-announcement-announcement by announcing that he, too, was considering a run for governor. Wealthy but virtually unknown outside his former senate district, it’s difficult to imagine how he’d be able to set himself apart from any of the race’s heavy hitters. He was a centrist as a senator, so he wouldn’t act as a liberal insurgent against Buckhorn or Graham, and his fundraising ability at this point in his career isn’t a distinguishing factor in a race that includes Levine. A niche for Ring to find and gain traction may prove elusive, but stranger things have happened.

Buddy Dyer (Orlando, Mayor)

The Potential Kingmaker

Buddy Dyer, Orlando’s seemingly eternal and wildly popular mayor has been overshadowed by his fellow I-4 corridor Mayor Bob Buckhorn in recent years. With Buckhorn in the race, Dyer would  be elbowed out of a constituency he’d need (Tampa).  He may still play a pivotal role in the race, as Orlando’s votes will be crucial with no central Florida candidate in the race to corner the region. Even if Buddy Dyer opts out of a run himself, his support in the Orlando market will be important, positioning Dyer as a potential kingmaker for Florida Democrats.

The Loser of the 2016 U.S. Senate Race (if the GOP Holds the Seat)

The Other Guys

Inevitably, one or both of the two major Democratic U.S. Senate candidates, Alan Grayson and Patrick Murphy, both sitting U.S. House members, will be in the conversation should Democrats fail to capture Marco Rubio’s open seat. Murphy, just 33 years old, would have a high profile after running a statewide race and his Dad could again raise boatloads of money.  Grayson would fill the thus far vacant role of left wing insurgent that every Democratic primary campaign seems to have. With the loss of Bernie Sanders, Grayson will be one of the highest profile progressive leaders in the country. Of course, if the Democrats win this seat it seems unlikely that the new junior U.S. Senator would want to vacate to run state wide for Governor, but he will be well positioned to have great influence on deciding the nominee.

Next time, we profile the Republicans.

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Barry Edwards wrote this guest column for Alive Tampa Bay.  Edwards is a political strategist based in St Petersburg.  He is a veteran of several high profile statewide races working for the House and Senate Victory Caucus, Education Commissioner Betty Castor, Cong. Dan Mica, Cong. Lois Frankel and others.  He is a commentator on 820 AM Radio and a frequent guest on several of the local Tampa Bay market political shows, including Florida This Week, Political Connections, News Hour with Dick Greco and The Rob Lorei Show.  Edwards is also a lecturer before political and civic groups, and has taught applied politics and issue advocacy in universities across the country.  Edwards has extensive policy experience being a strategist for Sen. Jeanne Malchon who wrote the first “Clean Indoor Air Act” and Florida’s first “Right to Know Law,” both of which became legislative models across the country.

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