In the second House congressional debate between Democratic challenger Gwen Graham and Republican incumbent Rep. Steve Southerland, a rare atmosphere of friendliness and civility emerged between the candidates in the midst of a closely watched and heated race for Florida’s 2nd Congressional District.
The race for the district has been one of most high-profile House contests in the country, one that genuinely offers national Democrats an opportunity to retake a vulnerable seat in the Republican-controlled House where the rate of reelection for incumbents reached 90% in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The event was held at the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center and moderated by Carl Cannon, the Washington D.C. bureau chief of Real Clear Politics. The Capital Tiger Bay Club sponsored the debate.
In their opening statements, Graham and Southerland offered competing visions on the future of the 2nd Congressional District, with both emphasizing a need on the continued economic progress for the district, even as they disagreed on how to attain that progress.
On the issues, a mostly civil and respectful debate followed, a stark contrast to the candidates’ first debate where an often intense and spirited exchange on various subjects left attendees flustered, and one described it to The Last Word as “a debate that left me with butterflies churning in my stomach.”
But their second debate was anything but a heated partisan debate, with both candidates moving towards the center of the political spectrum and sometimes agreeing with one another on a number of issues.
Both shared doubts on the Obama administration’s handling of the crisis in Syria and agreed on the need for increased border security to stem the flow of illegal immigration and campaign finance reform.
Graham and Southerland also called for a ban on all civilian air travel from the countries most stricken with Ebola in West Africa, even as public health experts warn that a travel ban would be difficult to enforce and would only worsen the situation in impoverished countries, potentially spreading the disease even further.
Graham agreed that Democrats “bit off far more than they could chew” when the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as ‘Obamacare’, was passed in early 2010 and said it was “shoved through without any bipartisan support.” She supported changing some parts of the health care law, without elaborating.
Southerland took the opportunity to defend his actions during the government shutdown last year, a much-targeted subject in television advertisements being run by Graham’s campaign and national Democrats.
The government shutdown, which began over a House-led fight to defund the ACA, temporarily closed many federal agencies due to lack of funding and drastically limited the services of the federal government. The shutdown lasted 16 days and is estimated to have cost the U.S. economy $24 billion, according to the financial ratings agency Standard & Poor’s.
“I did not want that, and if I had wanted it, I would not have supported those bills to prevent it,” Southerland said, referring to his votes to prevent the shutdown before it occurred. Graham struck back, pointing out that Southerland voted to extend the shutdown once a bipartisan Senate bill that ended the closure of the federal government reached the House floor for a vote.
The incumbent House Republican attempted to portray himself as a bipartisan pragmatist, citing his involvement in legislation that was passed with widespread congressional support, such as the 2010 BP oil spill-related RESTORE Act, which established a fund for projects and programs to restore the Gulf Coast. He also emphasized his relationships with other liberal members of the House.
On many occasions, Southerland lambasted “the mainstream media,” accusing the press of distorting his record.
“These relationships don’t fit the narrative that the mainstream media wants to have about me,” Southerland said.
The candidates were asked by Cannon to set the record straight on opponents’ negative advertisements, and in what was perhaps the Democratic challenger’s most forceful answer, Graham asserted that she was not Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), referring to the current House minority leader, who has been the target of conservative ire and a favorite target of negative ads from Republicans nationwide. Southerland’s campaign and outside groups supporting him have been running many television advertisements tying Graham to the policies of President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), all of whom Southerland criticized during the debate.
“I am not Nancy Pelosi, neither am I Barack Obama or Harry Reid. I am Gwen Graham,” Graham said.
The debate wasn’t without its humorous instants. In one memorable moment, Southerland mocked a Democratic attack ad that accused him of voting during the government shutdown to keep the congressional gym open by unbuttoning his suit jacket and revealing a less-than-svelte physique, drawing much laughter from the crowd.
“I mean, really?” Southerland said to the attendees’ delight.
A straw poll of Tiger Bay Club members conducted at the end of the debate had Graham win the debate with 87 of the votes to Southerland’s 68.
In a brief interview with The Last Word, Graham expressed pleasure with the debate, saying that people now had a clearer understanding of where Southerland and her stand on the issues that matter most to North Floridians.
On the nature of the congressional race itself, Graham said that with only 20 days left, she would continue to work hard and “the only poll that matters at the end of this is election day.”
“I also recognize this is a close race, and we’ll do everything we can for the next few weeks to continue spreading what I’m committed to doing in D.C and to hopefully express the people of North Florida’s desire to have a functioning government again.”
by JOSEPH ZEBALLOS / staff writer