Graham Bows Out

Senate Race Begins for Real

Posted November 3, 2003 at 6:49pm

With a year to go before Election Day 2004, the Florida Senate race began in earnest Monday when Sen. Bob Graham (D) announced that he will not run for a fourth term and Democrats — now forced to defend open seats along the entire southern half of the East Coast — sought to put their chances of holding the seat in the best light possible.

As expected, the three Democrats who had been steadily preparing for the possibility Graham would retire kicked their campaigns into high gear Monday.

Former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor, Rep. Peter Deutsch and Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas were all making plans for official announcements and working the phones to round up money and support.

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), who formed a Senate exploratory committee earlier this year to consider running for the seat, issued a statement Monday saying that his decision would be coming soon.

“Things are nuts,” said a harried Ryan Hampton as he answered calls at the Deutsch campaign headquarters Monday. “We’re pretty much pounding the phones away.”

Hampton, Deutsch’s campaign spokesman, said the Congressman has a statewide announcement tour tentatively scheduled for next Monday and Tuesday.

Deutsch, who had the most money in the bank among all of the candidates in the race as of Sept. 30, received the backing of the South Florida-based Teamsters Local 769 on Monday, which represents approximately 6,000 men and women. Hampton said other endorsements would be made public next week.

Meanwhile, Castor plans to release a new poll in the primary today, but her campaign declined to release any of the findings on Monday.

“I can say it’s very positive,” said campaign manager Jeffrey Garcia.

Castor was the only Senate candidate to attend Graham’s announcement in Tallahassee. She has the backing of EMILY’s List and a base in central Florida, leading some Democratic insiders to believe she would be the party’s strongest nominee.

“I think that the Deutsch-Penelas feud within that primary accrues to the benefit of Castor, who I think is already seen as probably the most attractive general election candidate,” said one Democratic strategist, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Deutsch has demonstrated a willingness to draw primary blood, attacking Penelas early on in the campaign, and some Democrats worry that the infighting between the two South Floridians could hurt the party’s chances in the long run.

Graham said Monday he has little worry the seat will remain in Democratic hands, echoing a statement released by Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.).

“I’m quite confident that the Democratic nominee will be successful next November,” Graham said in an interview aired on CNN.

Republicans, meanwhile, pushed to characterize the race as wide open with Graham out of the picture and played up the fact that Democrats now have to defend four open seats along the southern half of the Eastern seaboard.

“The South will be fertile territory for Republicans this cycle, and Florida is another excellent opportunity for us,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.) said in a statement.

Former Rep. Bill McCollum, state House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, state Sen. Daniel Webster and Judicial Watch founder Larry Klayman are the leading Republicans currently in the primary.

Once appearing to be dissatisfied with the current crop of candidates, Republicans made repeated efforts to recruit Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez into the race earlier this year. But Martinez, who is more focused on a run for governor in Florida in 2006, is not considered likely to reconsider the Senate race.

In his statement, Allen made some attempt to quell speculation that Republicans were still searching for a top-tier candidate to clear the primary field.

“I’m very encouraged by the caliber of the common-sense conservative Republican candidates in Florida who are getting around the state building support and raising money,” he said.

At the same time, the DSCC issued a news release Monday juxtaposing the strengths of their candidates with the current Republican field. The committee pointed out that the three Democrats have outraised the Republicans in the Senate race so far, even with Graham as a question mark.

But as both parties debated who has an advantage in the newly created open-seat race, the more important question regarding the allocation of resources loomed against the backdrop of the reconfigured 2004 landscape.

While Democrats argued it is too early to tell what effect the open seat in Florida might have on the party’s ability to devote funds to other races, Republicans were quick to point to previous statements made by Democrats indicating they would have money to spend elsewhere if Graham ran for re-election.

“He really would not have to rely on us for money or support like another nominee might, and we could really concentrate our resources in defending our open seats and trying to knock off our Republican opponents,” DSCC spokesman Brad Woodhouse told the Vero Beach (Fla.) Press Journal in a story that ran in early October.

“We are very confident that when it comes to the races that we’re going to be focusing on that the money will be there and the resources will be there,” DSCC spokesman Michael Siegel countered Monday. “It is too soon to say where we will be allocating resources.”

Meanwhile, Graham’s announcement that he will not seek a fourth term brings to an end a political career that spans five decades without one defeat.

“I am here today to announce that I will not be a candidate for election to a fourth term to the United States Senate,” Graham said, as he logged his 391st workday at Lincoln High School in Tallahassee. “I do not say this because I feel that all of my goals have been accomplished.”

The former two-term governor’s workdays have been a trademark campaign device since 1974.

Graham entered the Democratic presidential contest earlier this year, but his campaign never took off. After ending his bid Oct. 6, Graham contemplated his future and ultimately decided that he wanted to do other things.

“Perhaps it is the end of the beginning,” Graham said, vowing to add other chapters to his life’s work.

In his retirement Graham, who turns 67 on Sunday, said he hopes to be able to write and possibly to create an institution that would work toward preparing the next generation of public servants.