A case study.

Florida’s 2nd Congressional District is a prototypical example of the terrain that helped build Democratic House majorities from 2006-2010, but went hard for Republicans starting with the 2010 elections. Republican Steve Southerland won the district in 2010, beating a long-term Democratic incumbent by double digits. And Southerland held the seat in 2012, defeating a well-known and popular Democratic State Senator. Thus, when the 2014 cycle started many pundits did not see Florida’s 2nd District as a prime pickup opportunity for Democrats. After all, not only had the incumbent Republican won two tough elections, but Barack Obama lost the district to Mitt Romney by several points even as Obama was carrying the state en-route to his 2012 re-election.  Prominent Washington pundits were very pessimistic about Democratic chances in this district in 2014. Stu Rothenberg, a respected elections-handicapper, wrote that the race was “an uphill challenge” for Democrat Gwen Graham and that “to win, she needs to thread the needle,” and “Democrats shouldn’t kid themselves about Graham’s prospects against Southerland.” 

Ultimately, Gwen Graham defeated Steve Southerland in 2014 – one of just two Democrats nationally to oust a Republican incumbent in a cycle that was very tough for Democrats. In a district that Democratic gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist took 46% of the vote, Graham took 51% – running ahead of the top-of-the-ticket in each of the district’s twelve counties – from Democratic base counties of Leon and Gadsden, to small-town swing counties like Wakulla and Franklin, and even the heavily GOP, Bay County. Gwen Graham’s campaign successfully pieced together a diverse winning coalition by focusing on turning out core Democratic constituencies of African Americans and younger voters exceeding expectations among suburban swing voters, and running ahead of other recent Democrats in more rural and Republican areas.

Gwen Graham’s success was driven by an aggressive, disciplined campaign that was a reflection of the candidate herself. As the DC pundits correctly said, Graham had to “thread the needle” to win this district – especially in the 2014 cycle. ALG’s polling and focus groups were integral in developing a message that generated enthusiasm among Democrats while still allowing Graham to compete and win enough Independents to create a district wide majority.

Our research identified the potency of “the North Florida Way” as a consistent and over-riding thematic that contrasted Gwen Graham’s deep Florida roots and values to Steve Southerland’s record of putting Washington politics and party loyalty over what was right for the district. We also used both quantitative and qualitative methods to understand how best to integrate Gwen’s father, former Senator Bob Graham, into the race, in a way that helped tell Gwen’s story of a commitment to service without overshadowing her own record as a PTA mom and top lawyer for the Leon County Board of Education. Additionally, our tracking polls in the final weeks of the campaign helped navigate attacks from Republicans, including false ads that called Gwen a “lobbyist,” guilt-by-association to Obamacare and Nancy Pelosi, and late-breaking desperation ploys injecting terrorism into the campaign.

The Graham campaign did indeed have a very small margin of error. However, with a talented manager in Julia Gill Woodward, strong creative from Rich Davis and Dylan Sumner, and messaging and strategic guidance from our polling and focus groups, Gwen Graham was able to run as an authentically progressive candidate who supported marriage equality, Obamacare, and strong environmental protections – and beat a Tea Party Republican in a district Mitt Romney carried in a historically tough year for Democrats.