Underdog Nan Rich runs determined grassroots gubernatorial campaign

Nan Rich is a long way from home.

In this ultraconservative city on the western edge of the Florida Panhandle, the Democratic candidate for governor is more than 650 miles from her base of support in left-leaning Broward County.

Any farther and she would be in Alabama.

Rich is keenly aware of the distance as she settles in for a meet and greet at a trendy restaurant that serves both sushi and Southern comfort food. Winning votes here is a long shot. But so is winning the governor’s mansion.

Rich, a former state senator from Weston, is the decided underdog in the Aug. 26 Democratic primary. Her opponent, former Gov. Charlie Crist, is better known and better financed, and widely expected to face sitting Gov. Rick Scott in the general election.

Still, Rich has spent more than two years crisscrossing the state, hammering on her talking points: More money for public schools. An increase in the minimum wage. Healthcare for all.

Her campaign workers say she has traveled more than 160,000 miles and attended more than 325 campaign events.

“Look at what happened with Eric Cantor,” Rich said last week, recalling the U.S. House majority leader from Virginia who shockingly lost this month’s primary election to a little-known economics professor. “That’s the power of grassroots organizing.”

Despite her best efforts, the spotlight has remained on Crist, a one-term Republican governor who ran a failed bid for U.S. Senate in 2010 and became a Democrat in 2012.

That’s partially because of name recognition. Rich is well known in South Florida, where she was a longtime community activist and held elected office. But elsewhere in the state, her name doesn’t ring a bell in most voters’ minds. A Quinnipiac poll in April found that 85 percent of voters hadn’t heard enough about Rich to have an opinion on her. Her Twitter account has just 2,379 followers and her Facebook account has 20,000 likes.

Rich also has struggled to raise money. Her campaign has thus far collected $379,000 in contributions — a fraction of the nearly $12 million Crist has between his campaign and the political committee “Charlie Crist for Florida.”

Rich’s biggest challenge, according to Florida Atlantic University political science professor Kevin Wagner: convincing her own party that she’s a viable candidate statewide.

“Democrats are at a point where winning is what matters,” he said. “They see Charlie Crist as the candidate who can beat Rick Scott.”

Rich’s campaign has caused some friction in the party. Some Democrats say she is detracting from the front-runner and calling attention to his political liabilities.

Rich has said she is the only “true Democrat” in the race. Crist has repeatedly rebuffed her calls for a primary debate — a fact the Republican Party of Florida has used to attack Crist.

The Florida Democratic Party says it is neutral in the primary.

“We have a great deal of respect for Sen. Rich and her service to Florida,” spokesman Max Steele said in a statement. “As the primary unfolds, we are looking toward the November election and are building the grassroots movement to defeat Rick Scott.”

But Rich says there is evidence that the party is already supporting her opponent. She hasn’t been invited to as many party-sanctioned speaking engagements, she said.

Without the Democratic machinery to help her, Rich has adopted a grassroots strategy. That means time on the road, discussing her record of supporting gay rights, reproductive rights, public schools and the environment.

Traveling the state is not glamorous. There is no private jet or red-white-and-blue campaign bus. Rich flies commercial. When she needs to connect between cities, she drives with a friend or campaign worker.

The septuagenarian (she’s 72) says her supporters keep her energized. She is often surrounded by enthusiastic activists who call themselves Nan Fans.

There’s Joe Snodgrass, the retired electrician from Crescent City who turned his 32-foot camper into a moving billboard for Rich’s campaign. He drives the “Nan Van” to campaign events around the state.

Judy Byrne Riley, a retired commercial Realtor from Niceville, is one of Rich’s top organizers in northwest Florida. She became a Nan Fan after winning a dinner with Rich in a raffle.

“When people meet Nan, they realize her sincerity, her experience, her qualifications, her values,” Byrne Riley said.

Rich’s recent swing through the Panhandle began Tuesday, when she dropped off her qualifying documents in Tallahassee. She was joined by a dozen fans, who clapped and cheered once the paperwork was in.

The Nan Van was parked outside.

That afternoon, Rich drove with a friend to Okaloosa County. The next 24 hours included interviews with local reporters, a private reception in Shalimar, and the meet-and-greet in downtown Pensacola.

The Pensacola event was a friendly, intimate affair. Most of the 30 attendees were Democratic women intent on seeing a female governor. Rich introduced herself to almost everyone who came.

Halfway through the event, retired nurse Evalyn Narramore urged the group to help build Rich’s name recognition by donating to her campaign.

“It’s an uphill battle for any Democrat in Escambia County, Okaloosa County and Santa Rosa Country,” Narramore said. “There’s no way a Democrat can win more than 50 percent of the votes here.”

Scott won all three counties by wide margins in 2010. He took more than two-thirds of the vote in both Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties.

Still, Narramore was confident that Nan Fans could play a role in the election.

“We helped tipped the balance for Barack Obama and we hope to do it for Nan,” she said.

The following morning, Rich drove to Panama City to address the Democratic Women’s Club of Bay County. She delivered her stump speech, fielded questions from the audience, and then hit the road again.

The trip concluded later that night at a meeting of the Capital City GLBTA Democratic Caucus. About 20 people came to see her speak in an otherwise quiet Tallahassee watering hole.

Before the evening came to a close, Rich said some of her supporters had questioned her visit to the Panhandle. Why waste her time?

“My answer is that the vote is cumulative,” she said. “I plan on doing very well in Broward, my home county. But you never know which county is going to make the difference in the end and push you over the top.”