The four men seeking the Democratic nomination for Florida governor wore dark suits to a Wednesday night debate in Fort Myers.
Gwen Graham wore a pink jacket.
“You may notice I look a little different than my other friends up here on stage,” Graham said in her opening statement. “I’m a mom, a former PTA president, public school official, and I served Florida in Congress and it is these life experiences that make me uniquely qualified to be governor of Florida.”
With few disagreements among the Democratic candidates on issues, Graham has often characterized the field as “Gwen and the men” at a time when the #MeToo movement and Democratic dyspepsia over Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton have contributed nationally to a record number of women running for office.
Sixty-two women have opened campaigns for governor across the U.S. this year, shattering the previous record of 34 female candidates in 1994, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. The center says this year has also seen a record number of women running for U.S. Senate (54) and U.S. House (472). Nearly three-quarters of the women candidates are Democrats, according to the center’s figures.
“You have a strong surge among Democratic women candidates … The 2016 election in various ways may have been a catalyst for them to declare their candidacy,” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Rutgers center.
“Part of the thing about Hillary Clinton losing to Donald Trump was the contrast vis-a-vis gender between them was so significant. She was running to break the highest, hardest glass ceiling and he was running a campaign that engaged the most traditional aspects of masculinity,” Dittmar said.
Former Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, the Democrat whose 2010 bid to become the state’s first woman governor fell short when she lost to Republican Rick Scott, says Trump’s election and the #MeToo movement have motivated more Democratic women to run.
“It has everything to do with Donald Trump and the fact that a guy can get elected president who brags about groping women and who has extramarital relationships with people. That obviously outraged women,” said Alex Sink, whose own bid to become Florida’s first female governor fell short in 2010 when she lost to Republican Rick Scott.
“The whole Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby — it just goes on and on about harassment issues that have outraged women. The idea that legalized abortion could be outlawed has awakened women for sure,” Sink said.
Graham doesn’t fit the recently woke woman mold in that she was pondering the 2018 governor’s race months before Trump’s election.
Women are nearly 60 percent of Democratic voters in Florida and about 54 percent of all voters statewide. In 2016, when Trump carried Florida by 1.2 percent, exit polls show Clinton won by 4 percent among women while Trump won by 9 points among men.
In 2010, Florida exit polls showed Scott winning 54-to-43 percent among men while Sink won 52-to-45 percent among women.
Sink said more women and their perspectives are needed in elected office, but gender is only part of a “total package” of factors to consider in evaluating a candidate. She noted that she waited until this month to endorse Graham in the governor’s race.
Graham, the daughter of former Florida Sen. and Gov. Bob Graham, has stressed more than her gender to differentiate herself from her rivals in the campaign. She often points, for example, to her election to a GOP-leaning North Florida congressional seat during the Republican wave year of 2014 as proof she can win a tough race against a Republican. None of her Democratic primary rivals has won a partisan race.
Graham served a single term in Congress before a redistricting plan gave her district even more of a Republican tilt. She opted not to seek re-election in 2016 and began exploring the governor’s race.
During her term, Graham broke ranks with Democratic leadership to vote for the Keystone XL Pipeline, to loosen some of the Dodd-Frank regulations on Wall Street and to tighten vetting of Syrian refugees — votes that have drawn criticism from her rivals in the more-liberal-than-thou Democratic primary.
Graham said she found in Congress that women seemed more open to bipartisan problem-solving.
“Women bring a different leadership approach and it’s desperately needed today,” Graham said in a June interview. “I’m about solutions, I’m about getting things done and allowing divisiveness to stand in the way of that is not something that’s ever going to be acceptable to me. This is something I’ve done professionally my whole life, is to find a way to bring people together to actually accomplish moving the ball forward.”
Being a woman probably helps Graham in a Democratic primary, said Palm Beach County Tax Collector Anne Gannon, who is supporting Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum in the race.
“It is a factor, particularly here in Palm Beach County, which has a long history of electing women,” Gannon said. “But I could also say the same thing for Andrew, who is an African-American. It’s important for African-Americans to see a candidate who has their experiences.”
Data reporter Mike Stucka contributed to this story.
Other women running statewide
Democrat Gwen Graham is the only woman running for governor in Florida. But three other women are running statewide, too. Republican Ashley Moody is looking to succeed Attorney General Pam Bondi. State Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Lake Placid, is running for Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, as is Democrat Nicole Fried, an attorney.