Attorney Gwen Graham, daughter of the state's former governor and senator, is raising cash and consolidating Democratic establishment support behind her bid for Florida's 2nd. But looming over her campaign is a potential primary challenge from the party's 2012 nominee, former state Sen. Al Lawson.
“I’m interested," Lawson said in an interview with CQ Roll Call. He indicated that his decision on whether to run will come in the next 30-60 days.
Florida's 2nd District tops Democrats' list of pickup opportunities this cycle. The seat is held by freshman Republican Rep. Steve Southerland II, who beat Lawson by 6 points in 2012.
State and national Democrats like Graham's chances against Southerland. Their fear is that Lawson has high enough name identification to win the primary but his fundraising weaknesses could hurt him in the general election.
Lawson is well-known in the Tallahassee-based district from more than two decades in the state legislature. One Florida Democratic operative praised his political skills but acknowledged that his ability to raise money is a serious concern.
Democrats say raising money is one of Graham's strengths. She hauled in more than $375,000 in the second quarter — her first in the race — and will report more than $300,000 in cash on hand.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee named her to its Jumpstart program, a designation for the committee's top-tier recruits. Graham announced her candidacy in early April and recently made the rounds in Washington to meet with national reporters. (Read Roll Call's interview with Graham.)
Bob Graham served as the Sunshine State's governor from 1979 to 1987 and as senator from 1987 to 2005. He unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004.
“The national Democrats, from what I can observe, they pretty much have been leaning more toward Graham,” Lawson said. “They say they’re not going to get involved but her father knows a lot of people who can give money."
Lawson says his own name identification would offset any Graham financial advantage, adding that lobbying groups approached him about running. He is trying to schedule a trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with those groups and members who have supported him in the past. He hopes several officials who backed his 2012 bid will help him again, including House Assistant Minority Leader James E. Clyburn, Rep. Corrine Brown and her fellow Floridian, former Rep. Peter Deutsch.
So far, no meeting with the DCCC is scheduled.
Lawson described Graham as “a nice lady” but criticized her for not being well-known enough in the area. “She has a lot of work to do,” he said. “Even if I don’t run, she will have a major uphill battle against Southerland."
Lawson is no fan of Graham's father, a result of a bad experience they had two years ago.
“I called him and asked him for help against the Republican [Southerland], and he said he didn’t want to get involved," Lawson said of his 2012 campaign.
He said Graham went so far as to refuse to make a $25 donation. The former senator cited being “out of politics” as the reason for not donating, Lawson said.
“I was really surprised,” he said. “I helped him a lot and thought he’d be interested in helping a candidate for U.S. Congress. But I was a guy that really campaigned hard for him that was running."
Gwen Graham's camp declined to address Lawson's charge. Her campaign manager, Julia Gill, wrote in an email, "Gwen is committed to bringing a new kind of leadership to Washington and to be an independent voice for the people of North Florida."
Lawson's central strategy, if he runs and wins the primary, is to run a general-election campaign that reaches out to the region's rural voters who are registered Democrats but habitually cross over to vote Republican.
He added that he will conduct polling before he makes his decision.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Congress,” Lawson said.
The race is rated Lean Republican by Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.