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Close One in St. Pete

Will FL special election sink jolly GOP?

By 1.27.14

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The March 11 special congressional election in Florida’s 13th district — pitting Republican David Jolly against Democrat Alex Sink — is likely drawing more attention than it warrants. National publications have written about it, and various pundits and political prognosticators from all points have mined it for indications of the national mood.

Well, all right. I guess all of this attention does no harm. After all, column inches and airtime have to be filled. And the spotlight has certainly increased the national money flowing into this race, money that will stimulate the local economy far more than anything Obama has done. But trend-spotters have almost certainly overplayed their hands in a race that will be determined by the peculiarities of the local district, not by any shift in the national zeitgeist. 

District 13, which is entirely within Pinellas County and includes the cities of St. Petersburg and Clearwater, is older, whiter, and made up more of people who have moved here from elsewhere than most districts in the lower 48. Its voice is not the voice of the nation. But lots of campaign check-writers on the mainland haven’t gotten this memo. More than 80 percent of Sink’s seven-figure campaign war chest has come from outside of the district, as has more than 40 percent of Jolly’s. The Tampa Bay Times reported Tuesday that the Democrat House Majority PAC plans to spend $650,000 on TV ads supporting Sink’s candidacy.

Many national political soothsayers, including Larry Sabato’s respected “Sabato’s Crystal Ball,” published by the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, are calling the race “leans Democrat.” If Sink wins, she would be the first Democrat to represent the district in 60 years. Since 1954, the district has been represented in Washington by two Bills — Bill Cramer from 1954 to 1970, then Bill Young from 1970 until Young’s death at 82 last October.

Those whooping up Sink’s prospects have a case. Sink, who ran for governor and lost (narrowly) to Republican Rick Scott in 2010, and was Florida’s Chief Financial Officer from 2006 to 2010, is better known than Jolly, who was an aide to Young from 1995 to 2007 and later worked as a lobbyist in Washington. Sink’s campaign and liberal groups such as Emily’s List and the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are calling Jolly little more than a limb of Satan because he has worked as a lobbyist (a vocation, by the way, which attracts as many Democrats as Republicans, and the practitioners of which dot Sink’s campaign contribution list).

Sink is a woman (full name Adelaide Alexander Sink), which these days is good for a couple of points in most elections. And there's a Libertarian in the race, who will siphon off more votes from Jolly than from Sink. Those who don’t think a third party candidate in a race can make a difference should check with Governor Cuccinelli of Virginia. Al Gore (see 2000) is probably pretty sensitive on the subject as well.

But Jolly’s case is far from hopeless. While Sink had no primary opposition, Jolly won a spirited primary race against two Republican candidates, thereby raising his name recognition. Jolly is well versed on issues and articulate on the stump, whereas Sink is a fumbling campaigner. In her 2010 governor’s race she even managed to lose a debate to Rick Scott, which is not easy to do. The tongue-tied Scott, who has been a pretty decent governor, is so inept at making his points before a mike or a camera that he is downright painful to watch. Jolly and Sink will debate at least once before Election Day.

Republicans have a two-point registration advantage in the district, though the Republican advantage here is less than in the recent past. The race is ideologically clear. Jolly the conservative is running on fiscal responsibility, limited government, and personal freedom, overturning Obamacare and replacing it with a private sector alternative, a strong defense, and taking care of veterans (many of whom reside in the district).

Sink takes the more liberal, government-intensive approach. She’s an apologist for Obamacare, which is about as popular as tooth-decay in the district. She says she wants to keep Obamacare and fix it. She is pro-abortion. She natters on about gridlock in Washington, but it’s not clear that a majority of Pinellas voters consider government inaction a bad thing. She says she would like to help small businesses succeed and put an end to wasteful spending in Washington, yet she has consistently supported Obama. We’ll see how she handles this disconnect in the campaign.

The first poll in the race, released this week, should be comforting to the Jolly camp. An outfit called St.PetePolls shows Jolly up by four points. The survey of 1,278 registered voters in Pinellas County has a margin of error of +/- 2.7 percent. The poll isolates the issue of Obamacare as the most important in the minds of voters. Fully 68 percent of those polled said Obamacare would influence how they vote, and almost two thirds of those support repealing and/or replacing. Advantage Jolly.

Recent Florida and national politics make predictions a mug’s game. So I won’t go out on a limb. I don’t like to get crosswise with Larry Sabato. He’s a savvy guy and very often right in his predictions. But for now I’ll go only so far as to call this conservative-liberal face-off “leans close.” This will be a special election in an off-year, so turnout will be low, almost certainly below 30 percent. The get-out-the-vote effort by the two sides may well decide things.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.