It's unlikely that the national-marquee race in Northwest Florida's 2nd Congressional District will involve a competitive Democratic primary as former state Sen. Al Lawson has decided against running again for the seat.
It would have been Lawson's third try in the district, which has been held since 2010 by Panama City Republican Steve Southerland - and is one of a handful of seats nationally considered winnable by Republicans and Democrats alike.
Already the duel between Southerland and Democrat Gwen Graham, daughter of former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, has drawn national attention and money.
Lawson said Monday he's still got too much debt from two previous congressional campaigns to run again this year - about $90,000, he estimated.
"I've been knocking it back every month," he said.
And Lawson has no doubt it will cost major sums to defeat the incumbent Southerland.
"(Graham) would have to spend a ton of money to win this race, because (Southerland is) going to have all kinds of money," said Lawson, who represented the Tallahassee area in the state House and Senate for nearly three decades.
Political scientist Susan MacManus of the University of South Florida said both Southerland and Graham will be well-funded --- "but the idea that it will be locally raised is pie in the sky," she said. "The money will be pouring in from outside Florida."
So far Southerland and Graham are neck and neck in their fund-raising.
As of his October filing, Southerland had raised $839,854.98 during the 2014 election cycle and spent $302,773.33.
As of her October filing, Graham had raised $830,608.80 and spent $164,620.88.
"Clearly, when you don't have primaries, you're able to spend more in the generals," Southerland said. "You get to preserve your money. Other than that, I'm not sure how it (Lawson staying out of the Democratic primary) will change the race."
The district includes Tallahassee and Panama City – the homes of the challenger and incumbent, respectively – and Washington, Bay, Jackson, Gulf, Calhoun, Liberty, Gadsden, Leon, Jefferson, Wakulla, Franklin, Taylor and part of Madison counties.
Lawson said most of those counties are rural and conservative, but a big Democratic turnout in Leon County can offset those voters.
"They (rural voters) just have a tendency to vote straight down the Republican ticket," he said. "But if (Graham) runs well in Leon, I think she'd have a real shot."
MacManus said the 2nd Congressional District is divided by virtually every demographic.
"You have rural-urban-suburban," she said. "You have a racial mix. You have an ideological mix and definitely an age mix. …Every kind of division you can think of in politics is evident in that district."
In 2012, Southerland won re-election with 175,856 votes, or 52.7 percent of the total. Lawson had 157,634 votes, or 47.2 percent. The tally for Leon and Gadsden Counties, which Lawson carried, amounted to slightly more than one-third of Southerland's total votes for the district and just under two-thirds of Lawson's total.
In the district's two most populous counties, Southerland won 54,869 votes in Leon, or 38.20 percent, while Lawson had 88,427, or 61.56 percent; in Bay County, Southerland had 57,144 votes for 72.44 percent, while Lawson had 21,442 votes for 27.18 percent.
"This is a battleground district," Southerland said Monday in a telephone interview.
MacManus also cited the public sector-private sector divide in the district, noting that Leon County is home to many state employees - which could be a factor "if pensions become the issue I think they might in the legislative session."
Another factor is the steady stream of controversy coming out of Washington, D.C.
Southerland said he's looking forward to campaigning on the problematic rollout of the federal Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. He was elected in the tea-party wave of 2010 and ran in opposition to the health-care law.
"Whoever I would face in the general election, a Democrat is going to be tied to that law, and they're going to have to justify the vision of this administration and the Democratic Congress that enacted it," he said.
Additionally, MacManus said, Southerland's vote in favor of a bipartisan budget deal last week could help him. "It shows that he can compromise," she said.
But Southerland said he's shown that several times, citing what is known as the RESTORE Act, which was related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and legislation affecting transportation and free trade.
"When there's good legislation that falls in line with my values, I support it," he said.
The good news for Graham, MacManus said, is that women candidates are likely to do well in 2014.
"It's often the case that when people are down on policy in general, they may take a look at a new face - particularly a woman's face," she said.
Graham was not available for comment Monday. In an email, she thanked Lawson "for his service to our community, and for being a passionate, vocal advocate for North Florida families."
Information provided by The News Service of Florida