TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The race between Republican incumbent Steve Southerland and Democratic challenger Gwen Graham in a North Florida congressional district continues to get tighter. Money is pouring in, and the race is one of a handful nationally that Democrats are targeting.
Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told Politico on Tuesday the district was one of three his party could pick up in 2014, a year in which Republicans are expected to gain several seats in the U.S. House. The non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report switched its ranking of the race from "Leans Republican" to "Toss Up/Tilt Republican" in mid-July.
Now Graham is deploying her family --- including her father, former Florida governor and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham --- in a series of ads and events aimed at countering Southerland's advantage in conservative parts of the Panhandle.
Southerland is fighting back, challenging Graham to identify the issues on which she disagrees with the embattled Obama administration.
"She?s been given invitation after invitation after invitation to go on the record and make public statements of where she differs in the policy positions of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi," Southerland told reporters this month at the opening of his Tallahassee campaign office. "There?s only so much you can do on the air, on TV and through commercials and through third-party groups. At some point in time, I think the people want to see you and they want to hear you make a definitive statement on what you believe regarding policy."
Graham, for her part, has been using her father?s strategy of "workdays," in which the candidate helps perform the jobs of ordinary Floridians. As Southerland was opening his Tallahassee headquarters, Graham, an attorney, was heading for Fades, a barbershop across town, to sweep the floor and answer the phone.
?We are most definitely in a position to win this,? she said. ?We?re getting not only Democratic support but Republican support. This is a bipartisan campaign. It?s not about being a Democrat or a Republican --- it?s about having someone in Washington that?s going to be looking out for everyone in this district.?
The sprawling Congressional District 2 includes Tallahassee and Panama City --- the homes of Graham and Southerland, respectively --- and Washington, Bay, Jackson, Gulf, Calhoun, Liberty, Gadsden, Leon, Jefferson, Wakulla, Franklin, Taylor and part of Madison counties. Leon and Gadsden, in the eastern part of the district, are heavily Democratic, while the Panama City area to the west is heavily Republican.
Southerland, who runs his family?s funeral home, was first elected in the tea party wave of 2010, vowing to oppose the Affordable Care Act. He swept out seven-term incumbent Allen Boyd, a Blue Dog Democrat from Monticello who had voted for the health care law.
In 2012, Southerland defeated former state Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee. Lawson racked up votes in Leon and Gadsden counties, but Southerland swept the small rural counties to the west.
"I?m running a 14-county strategy," Graham said. "From the very beginning, we have been."
On Wednesday, she?ll kick off eight ?Grilling with the Grahams? cookouts across the district, along with appearances at the Possum Festival in Wausau on Saturday and the opening of her third campaign office, in Marianna, on Monday.
Graham also has outraised Southerland. As of June 30, she?d collected $2,353,864 in contributions and had $1,574,520 on hand, while the incumbent had raised $1,916,651 and had $1,394,748 on hand.
But it?s hard to track all the dollars flowing into the race, given the outside groups involved. Graham?s allies include the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Emily?s List, which funds pro-choice Democratic women. Southerland?s include the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Koch brothers-backed group Americans for Prosperity, which paid for TV ads praising the congressman?s policy positions in October and February.
The deep-pocketed Koch brothers, whose Wichita, Kan.-based empire includes petroleum, natural gas, fertilizer and plastics, have become controversial figures in national politics because of the large amounts of money they spend to help conservative candidates and causes. Southerland said at least they have a relationship to the district because one of their companies, Georgia-Pacific, owns the Buckeye paper mill in Taylor County.
"There?s money flying into that (Graham) campaign from all over the country, from people that have never even been to Florida," Southerland said. "At least the Koch brothers have plants and are creating jobs in Florida."
Graham has blasted Southerland for his role in last year's government shutdown and, as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee put it in a fund-raising email, "everything North Floridians hate about Congress."
"Right now Congress is taking home big paychecks and perks without accomplishing anything," Graham said earlier this month. "That?s not fair to the middle-class families that are footing the bills."
Southerland said his campaign would need to raise $2.5 million and predicted the total cost of the race would be $10 million to $12 million.
He said the two candidates are "only about $150,000 apart" in cash on hand.
"I would hope if my dad was a 38-year legislator and two-term governor and three-term United States senator --- I would have thought they?d have raised a lot more money than they?ve raised," he said. "My dad is a funeral director, running a small family business. So I like where we are."
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