Republican Rep. Steve Southerland of Florida has a target on his back. As the 2014 midterms wind to a close, the nonprofit Food Policy Action has decided to spend the final month of the campaign cycle doing everything it can to unseat the two-term congressman.
An Oct. 1 press release from the group, which advocates on issues like hunger and agricultural policy, identified Southerland as its "#1 Campaign Target" this year. Now the nonprofit is pouring some $100,000 into advertising, phone banking and organizing in an attempt to depose the embattled lawmaker.
Southerland isn't exactly a household name like Ted Cruz or Joni Ernst, but the ire against him won't come as a surprise to anyone who has closely followed recent changes to the food stamp program. During the most recent of his two terms in the House, Southerland made a name for himself by leading the Republican charge to cut billions of dollars out of the food stamps program. Specifically, he sponsored an amendment that would have allowed states to impose their own work requirements on food stamp recipients, and pushed for a bill that would have cut $39 billion out of food stamps over the next decade.
"He's just been terrible on food," said Tom Colicchio, a celebrity chef, member of Food Policy Action's board of directors, and MSNBC contributor. When Food Policy Action scored every single member of the House and Senate on food policy, Southerland came in near the very bottom with 11%.
That said, there were plenty of members of Congress who ranked lower: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, another Republican in a tight reelection race, managed to achieve a 0% score. Food Policy Action chose Southerland as its primary target for this cycle not because of the ranking, but because he is one of the members of Congress most closely associated with food stamp cuts. And just as importantly, the race between him and Democratic challenger Gwen Graham is close enough that Food Policy Action hopes its money can make a difference.
Gwen Graham is the scion of a local dynasty: Bob Graham, the former U.S. senator and Florida governor, is her father. Her entrance into the race has complicated what should have been an easy election cycle for Southerland, leading RealClearPolitics to label the race a toss-up. While Southerland may have more of a fight on his hands than he bargained for, there is no clear victor yet — meaning that if Graham ultimately deposes the incumbent, Food Policy Action may be able to legitimately claim at least a small chunk of the credit.
The goal isn't just to eliminate a single vote against funding food stamps. Instead, Food Policy Action is calculating that replacing Southerland would send a message to other elected officials and candidates that voters care about using federal money to combat hunger. If a member of the House gets unseated this year because of his stance on food stamps, the hope is that even 2016 presidential candidates would take note.
"In the last election cycle we had 20 Republican primary debates, we had three presidential debates, and food never come up once with the exception of when Newt Gingrich called Obama 'the food stamp president,'" said Colicchio. "So we would actually like to see it included in the presidential debates. We would like to see candidates getting questions about food insecurity and how they would like to fix the problem."
To bolster the case for giving food policy greater attention during political campaigns, Food Policy Action recently commissioned a poll in which it reportedly found that "voters care deeply about policy-related messages on nutrition assistance." But the group has its work cut out for it when it comes to persuading the national parties: While Republicans appear committed to cutting food stamps, Democrats have by and large stayed away from the issue of hunger altogether. Graham has avoided hitting Southerland over his attempts to cut food stamps, and earlier this year President Obama signed bipartisan legislation that included substantial cuts to food stamps in certain states.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that about one in every seven households lacks sufficient food for a healthy, active lifestyle.