The 73rd House District of Florida, encompassing Manatee and Sarasota Counties in central Florida, has only had one Democratic representative in the Florida House of Representatives since it was established in 1967. The district elected Donald Trump by 25 points in 2016. Even Democratic residents of the district have barely had any contact with any Democratic candidates or the party itself.
So Liv Coleman knew she was in for an uphill battle when she decided to run as a Democrat to represent the 73rd District in the 2018 midterm elections. Her opponent was Tommy Gregory, a Trump-supporting Republican. Even being aware of all of the strikes against her, she would find that various other factors would make it even more difficult. Despite all of these obstacles, she still ran a campaign that was groundbreaking.
Like many people who ran for office in 2017 and 2018, Liv was motivated to run after Trump’s election and participating in the Women’s March in January 2017. Though she had some experience volunteering for the Democratic Party in the past, Liv didn’t have much experience in campaigning before deciding to run for the House seat. Her background is in education, political science, and East Asian studies, and she is an Associate Professor of Political Science with a focus on Japanese politics at the University of Tampa, as well as the chair of the department. Education has run in her family, and it is such an important issue to her personally and politically that she made it the cornerstone of her platform in her campaign.
Naming her platform “Make Florida Schools #1,” Liv supported many much-needed improvements to the state’s public school system, including: more funding for higher teacher pay, bringing back public funds that have been diverted to private schools through voucher programs, eliminating high-stakes testing, and tuition-free community and technical college for at least a two-year degree. Making her case even more compelling was the fact that the Manatee County School District is the county’s largest employer. More generally, she ran so that her district would have strong representation for the public good instead of for special interests. These are issues that are (or should be) important to every voter, regardless of party, but unfortunately what should be basic issues beyond debate end up getting politicized in our hyperpartisan system, leaving hardworking people and students in the lurch.
While the Republicans had a number of candidates for the House seat in what became a tough race, Liv was the lone Democrat and had to fight to get any attention at all. At the same time, Tommy Gregory was known to have attended a meet-and-greet hosted by Peter Gemma, a white supremacist who is also involved in the Holocaust denial movement, which was not covered in the press until after there was a lot of public pressure to do so. This is just one example of the lopsided situation in which Liv found herself.
Knowing the odds against her, Liv, along with her assembled campaign team and her political science knowledge, examined the voting data of her district to see where she might make some headway. While the district is certainly heavily Republican, with 50% registered with that party, 25% are registered Democrats, and 25% are not registered with a party–that group, however, tended to lean Republican, as evidenced by the margin of victory Trump had over Hillary Clinton in 2016. The only way for voters to hear Liv’s important ideas was to speak to them directly, both at meet-and-greets and debates–but this, too, would prove to be a struggle. After bringing attention on social media to being excluded from a local discussion forum with Gregory and another Republican candidate, Liv finally got her rightful place in the debate. Her remarks quickly became popular online with people in the community who were similarly frustrated with the political process.
Liv ran her campaign about as cleanly and conscientiously as one could. She was able to outraise even her own expectations, despite being quite outfunded by her opponent. She ran a grassroots campaign on small donations, and accepted no corporate PAC money. She even, surprisingly, received support from Forward Majority Action PAC, a DC-based Super PAC, on the hope that certain Florida suburbs might flip for Democrats in the unstable political climate. She also had a number of important endorsements, including from EMILY’s List and the Planned Parenthood PAC. Liv ran a positive and upbeat campaign, in the spirit of one of her Groundbreaker heroes, the late Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. Growing up in Minnesota, Liv saw how Wellstone fought for everyday people in a positive, grassroots way, which was an important inspiration for her.
Perhaps the starkest demonstration of the hyperpartisan environment in which Liv and many others were running, an issue such as guns, which was a particularly sore one in light of the recent massacre that took place in Parkland, Florida, earlier that year, was kept quiet during this campaign. Even though a poll conducted by the Florida Republican Party revealed that a majority of gun owners were in favor of stronger gun regulations, she was told by so-called “experts” to avoid the issue. She smartly realized that besides being the right thing to do, discussing the issue would also appeal to the suburban moms whose votes she would need to even have a chance. But Gregory was supported by the NRA and seemed to get away with not mentioning it in front of certain audiences.
Liv’s greatest challenge and frustration, besides being a Democrat running in a very red district, was being both a woman and a tenured college professor. While she had no issue calling herself the broader term of “educator,” a local reporter took it too far by calling her a “schoolteacher.” She also heard the all-too-familiar contradictory refrains of “Smile more,” “Smile less,” “Dress up,” “Dress down.” Her youthful look also did not help matters, particularly running in a district with one of the highest populations of people over 65. Despite all these frustrations, Liv did her best to engage with traditionally female-dominated professions, such as teachers and nurses.
On November 6, the results were in, and they weren’t surprising: Gregory won the race with 61.9% of the vote (64,285 votes), while she carried 38.1% (39,614 votes). Even knowing all of the obstacles, this was of course disappointing–but there were reasons for hope. As she puts it, even in a district as red as this one, about 4 out of 10 voters came out for her. Perhaps most interestingly, Liv fared better than both the Democratic candidate for the seat in 2016 and Hillary Clinton in that district. The 2016 House candidate received 34.92% (36,678 votes) in what was a presidential election year, which generally means higher turnout. So for Liv to have performed as she did in a midterm year is actually quite impressive.
What’s more important than the numbers is the groundwork Liv helped lay with her candidacy. She was definitely the underdog, but in many ways that wasn’t the point. What was particularly striking about Liv’s campaign was how the rarity of a Democrat actually running and engaging with people in the district was noticed by the few Democratic voters in the area. In her travels door-to-door in the brutal Florida heat, she heard from people that her campaign was the first contact they’d ever had by a Democratic candidate or the party. So while she was a clear underdog and winning was very difficult, Liv has helped cast a mold for other Democrats who may be inspired to run. She also helped send a message that Republicans should not take certain districts for granted–they may have won this time, but if forward progress continues, there may be closer races in the years ahead.
Speaking with Liv and writing about her experience has forced me to think about my definition of a Groundbreaker. Of course, someone who wins an election despite all the odds, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is easy to define as a Groundbreaker. But Liv’s story is more nuanced. Like many candidates across the country, Liv was just a “regular person”–not a career politician, despite being a political scientist!–who was shaken, like many of us, by the election of Donald Trump and wanted to do her part to try to do something about it. She is a Groundbreaker because, though she did not win, to me, hers is an example of how the parts of campaigning that are less spoken about–meeting with people, putting yourself out there despite long odds against you–are just as important as the more obvious ones like raising money.
Liv hopes that her campaign can be an example to others like her, particularly her students, who want to do something to fight for change in their communities. Her decision to run despite the electoral history and, more importantly, despite the fact that Republicans usually run uncontested in her county, shows both her courage and the strength of her convictions. It also forced a discussion of issues that wouldn’t have happened in a one-candidate race. As she eloquently puts it, “I am drawn to any person, famous or not, who strives to do what is right, even or especially if it comes at significant personal cost.” She was heartened to find such people in her own community, many of whom likely gave her their votes. While her local Democratic Party organizations were critical to the success her campaign did have, the statewide Florida Democratic Party was not particularly helpful to her. The Florida Democratic Party, as well as statewide Democratic Party organizations in other red states, would be wise to look to her example for how to run future campaigns; with some patience and dedication, one day District 73, and others like it, could turn blue. Her fearlessness to run in the face of overwhelming odds should serve as both an inspiration and a call to action to others who feel outraged at our current system. Her experience shows me that it is worth fighting for what’s right, even if progress doesn’t happen as quickly as we hope.