PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Republicans who flipped a Democratic seat in Congress during the 2010 tea party movement could now lose it in part because of a snarky comment about a lingerie party.
That's because of the way U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland defended an all-male fundraiser that encouraged donors to "tell the Misses (sic) not to wait up" as the men joined in a time-honored tradition of talking policy and politics without women in the room. After Democrat Gwen Graham, the daughter of former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, took issue with the way the invitation was worded, Southerland asked a Tampa Bay Times reporter: "Has Gwen Graham ever been to a lingerie shower? Ask her. And how many men were there?"
The race for Florida's 2nd Congressional District is focused on the partisanship in Washington, and it's one of the few places where Democrats have a chance of beating a Republican incumbent. Graham, a 51-year-old lawyer who has worked for Tallahassee public schools, says that Congress is broken and that Southerland is part of the problem. Southerland says Graham would just be another vote for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Regardless of who wins, Republicans are expected to maintain control of the House.
The race in a district where the candidates have attended a worm gruntin' festival — an event that honors the art of attracting earthworms from the ground — and shaken opossums by the tail has at times been ugly. Graham has attacked Southerland for claiming in an ad that he supported the Violence Against Women Act when he actually voted against the final version that became law.
And Southerland has criticized Graham, saying she was hand-picked by Pelosi and is a former Washington lobbyist, a claim that isn't true.
Southerland, 49, of Panama City, also says Graham is running on her father's fame.
"She's royalty in politics. She was groomed for this. This is the Graham way. Bob Graham is everywhere she goes," Southerland said. "I can't imagine the pressure to win and how disappointing and humiliating it will be when they lose. I imagine she's walking the floor at night and not sleeping so well."
Graham said Southerland's claim is insulting.
"If I was my dad's son, he wouldn't be saying the same thing," she said. "I would never, ever ask people to support me and vote for me unless I knew that I had the skill sets to serve them well. What I have learned from my father is be informed, don't be partisan and work together with others to make the right decisions."
It's clear, though, that Southerland has had to defend himself on women's issues. After the all-male fundraiser and lingerie comment, he held a women for Southerland rally in Panama City Beach. For nearly an hour, six women, including Republican U.S. Reps. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming and Martha Roby of Alabama, took turns addressing a crowd of about 150 people and defending Southerland.
Southerland ended the event by singing "Stand By Me" to the crowd.
"It's not an issue with the women in our district. It's an issue for Gwen," Southerland said afterward. "They've got to have a diversion from the real issues that face the American people. I wouldn't want to have the record of the D.C. Democrats to run on, either."
Graham, though, is quick to point out both parties are to blame for the gridlock in Washington. And she says Southerland's campaign tactics reflect the partisan divide.
"This is what we need to change. The fact that either party feels that they need to dehumanize one another and be negative about one another is wrong, and people are so tired of it," she said. "People want to get back to a point where you feel OK about caring about one another regardless of what party you're in."
And yes, Graham also answered Southerland's questions. She has been to a lingerie shower. Once, when she was 21. And there were men there. The fact Southerland would even ask is a statement about his judgment, Graham said.
"The comparison is an offensive comparison because what his invitation indicated was that men get together and talk policy, and his response was that women get together and talk underwear," Graham said. "I'll let that speak for itself."
Follow Brendan Farrington on Twitter: http://twitter.com/bsfarrington