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Republicans May Lose Grip On Florida Panhandle House Seat


One of the tightest congressional races in the country is in Florida. For Democrats, it appears to one of the few bright spots in a difficult election year. Newcomer Gwen Graham is challenging incumbent Tea Party Republican Steve Sutherland in a conservative-leaning district.

NPR's Greg Allen reports that Graham is running a well-funded campaign that taps into her family's name recognition.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Gwen Graham says she's put nearly 35,000 miles on her car since jumping into the race last year. She's running in Florida's largest Congressional District, one which stretches across 14 counties. It's a culturally conservative district that includes fishermen, veterans, and wealthy retirees such as this group of supporters she met in a gated community in St. George Island.

GWEN GRAHAM: Hi, Gary. Gwen. Nice to see you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Nice to meet you.

ALLEN: Gwen Graham has never before run for public office but she entered the race with a big advantage, her name. Her father, Bob Graham, served two terms as governor, then three terms as U.S. Senator. In Tallahassee and in Washington, he had a reputation of working across the aisle. Gwen Graham says that's part of her legacy, one she'll take the Congress. She tells supporters that excessive partisanship is making it impossible to get anything done in Washington.

G. GRAHAM: If you're voting with their party as Congressman Sutherland has done 97 percent of the time, that vote alone is an indication that you don't see that neither Democrats or Republicans have all the answers.

ALLEN: On the stomp, Graham often campaigns with her father. The former governor and senator tells his daughter's supporters they have a chance to make history.


BOB GRAHAM: There has never been a woman elected to Congress from the Florida Panhandle. I think this is the best opportunity.


ALLEN: Gwen Graham's opponent, Steve Sutherland, made a little history of his own when he was elected four years ago. The conservative Republican tapped into Tea Party support to take a seat that for decades had been held by Democrats.

Sutherland attacks Graham as a liberal Democrat who worked for a Washington lobbying firm 25 years ago after graduating from law school. Graham worked at the firm but denies ever doing lobbying. In his ads, Sutherland links Graham with President Obama and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Supporting Obamacare. Liberal Washington insider. Handpicked and paid for by Pelosi. Don't be fooled.

ALLEN: On the Affordable Care Act, Graham is careful but consistent, saying some of the law is working well but there are parts of it that need to be fixed. One of her supporters on St. George Island, Susan Carney, is a Republican who says she likes Graham's promise to reach across the aisle.

SUSAN CARNEY: As a woman, she may very well do that because women are not as tied to party, I think, as they are to the issues. And I think that's important for this country.

ALLEN: It's all combined to make Graham's opponent, Steve Sutherland, one of the nation's most endangered Republican Congressman.

REPRESENTATIVE STEVE SUTHERLAND: We're good. We're good. We're holding up.

ALLEN: At a park in Panama City Beach, Sutherland met with a group of retired military to respond to Graham's attacks that his votes in Congress to hurt veterans.

SUTHERLAND: The people here know me. They know what I'm about. And they know I wouldn't do anything to harm our veterans ever.

ALLEN: Veterans aren't the only group Sutherland wants to reassure. After that event, he went to a Women for Sutherland rally. It was prompted by Graham attack ads asking him to explain votes in Congress, including one opposing the Violence Against Women Act.

Graham's ads received a boost when an imitation was leaked a Sutherland fundraiser with, quote, a small group of concerned men. Tell the missus not to wait up, the invitation read.

It's all left Sutherland on the defensive in a race that many analysts now rate as a tossup. Sutherland keeps working to tie his opponent to Democratic leaders. But he acknowledges Graham is not likely to help.

SUTHERLAND: You know she won't invite Nancy Pelosi. You know she won't invite Debbie Wasserman Schultz. I wish she would but she can't. She can't because she can't come out and show what is really true, that she, in every way, in every way, supports what they support.

ALLEN: Wrapping up his rally in Panama City Beach, Sutherland responded to the attacks in his own way, by singing to his supporters.

SUTHERLAND: (Singing) Stand by me. Woah, won't you stand by me. Woah, stand.

ALLEN: Greg Allen. NPR News.


SUTHERLAND: Stand by me. When the sky that we look upon, woah, tumble and fall. And the mountains would tumble. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.
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