Senate candidate Pam Keith defied pollsters and won 15 percent of vote

Democratic Senate candidate Pam Keith of Miami came in third in the Aug. 30 primary. But with 15 percent of the vote, she exceeded most expectations.
Democratic Senate candidate Pam Keith of Miami came in third in the Aug. 30 primary. But with 15 percent of the vote, she exceeded most expectations. Pam Keith U.S. Senate campaign

Throughout her unsuccessful 22-month bid to be Florida’s next U.S. senator, Democrat Pam Keith was ever the underdog — quietly campaigning across the state almost daily on her own, with an assist from a small but loyal band of staff and volunteers.

She gained some momentum over those months by offering specific policy ideas and delivering energetic and charismatic speeches to groups large and small, but she faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles from the start.

The party establishment ignored her.

Donors didn’t flock to her; she had to partially self-fund.

Florida and national media generally paid her almost no attention until this summer and, even then, there wasn’t much widespread coverage.

She wasn’t even included in most statewide polls and those that did pegged her most often with single-digit support. One in March had her as high as 11 percent support.

But despite that, Keith — a Miami labor attorney and Navy veteran in her first bid for public office — somewhat beat the odds after all.

She earned nearly 174,000 votes in Tuesday’s statewide primary, or 15 percent of the ballots cast.

I proved I belonged out there with the big dogs who had all the money and name recognition.

Pam Keith, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate

In unofficial results, Keith came in third — trailing U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson by about 26,000 votes statewide but beating him for second place in 31 of Florida’s 67 counties. Those included high population areas like Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Escambia, Duval and Broward.

Her strongest support came in the conservative Panhandle, where she won more than 30 percent of the vote in three counties: Escambia, Okaloosa and Santa Rosa.

U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, a moderate Democrat and the party establishment’s chosen favorite, won the primary handily with 59 percent, or about 665,000 votes, according to the unofficial results. He won in all but seven counties, including two that are part of Grayson’s Orlando-based congressional district, Osceola and Orange.

With an emphasis on positive takeaways Wednesday morning, Keith reflected on her loss via a Facebook Live video — a tool she used often to communicate with her supporters from the campaign trail.

“Welcome to the first day of my next chapter in life,” Keith began.

“The good news is I did way better than anybody expected,” she said. “I far out-performed every single poll that was done in this race, so people were pleasantly surprised. I proved I belonged out there with the big dogs who had all the money and name recognition.”

She continued: “Just to put that in context for you — I won nearly 175,000 votes without running a single ad on television, without running hardly any ads on radio, with no resources to pay staff all over the state. I did it on a skeletal budget with a team of very potent people but a very small staff — and as a first-time candidate. I have to put that in a very positive light.”

Voters who heard Keith speak on the campaign trail generally walked away praising her — she notably outshined both Grayson and Murphy at the Florida Democrats’ state convention last fall— but her progress wasn’t enough to move the spotlight away from her opponents’ high-profile, divisive battle.

Compared to the millions Murphy has raised, Keith took in just $229,000 during her campaign, including $85,000 she’d loaned herself. She spent about $195,000 in all, according to her latest FEC reports.

“I’m proud that I ran a very positive campaign that was solutions-oriented. I put new ideas on the table and I inspired people, and I’m proud of that,” she said. “Whatever happens from here, I can look at this as something I did to the best of my ability and I will never regret taking this chance.”

What’s next for Keith?

“No. 1, I need a job,” she admitted bluntly. She left her job as corporate counsel at NextEra Energy, the parent company for FPL, in August 2014 to start campaigning full time. She officially entered the U.S. Senate race that November.

Keith said she wants to “remain active” on issues she cares about — but she’s unsure whether another bid for public office is in the cards for her, because of the personal savings needed to take time off from a career and campaign full-time.

Keith congratulated Murphy on his victory, although she’d criticized him frequently on the campaign trail. (She once described him as “a pampered, privileged, entitled brat who has never had to work for anything in his life.”)

“Patrick Murphy may not have been my choice, but he was the choice of an overwhelming majority of Democratic voters,” Keith said Wednesday, “so I congratulate Patrick and I wish him the very best in the general election.”

Keith also urged progressives in Florida — many of whom made up the base of support for her and Grayson — to “don’t be saddened, don’t be salty and don’t give up.”

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark