Campaign Crawlers

Message Bottled Up

Outside groups dominate key congressional race.

By 2.28.14

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Voters in the 13th Congressional District of Florida (South St. Petersburg north to Dunedin) who would like to learn what the candidates wishing to represent them in the U.S. House are all about will get little help from the avalanche of television ads on the race. The febrile ads mostly call the opponent of their candidate a knave and an incompetent.

Even compared to the average campaign, the ads in this one go to exceptional lengths to not talk about what the candidates would do if elected. They mostly shout about how ill suited the other guy, or gal, is for the job. The local media are happy enough to play along with the gag, building their stories around the charges.

The candidates aren’t totally to blame for the nastiness and inaccuracies of the charges being bruited about, though they aren’t knocking themselves out to clarify things. Most of the gaudy number of ads – more than $8 million has already been spent in the Tampa-St. Petersburg television market to influence this March 11, off-year, special election — have not been purchased by Republican David Jolly or Democrat Alex Sink, but by outside groups supporting one or the other. By law candidates aren’t to have anything to do with the content of ads purchased by groups independent of the campaigns.

Some of the outside groups whooping up Ms. Sink include the House Majority PAC, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Republicans counter through the National Republican Congressional Committee and various chambers of commerce groups.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, the Democrat groups charge Jolly with wanting to snatch Social Security checks out of the arthritic fingers of the district’s many senior citizens. This seems to be required of Democratic candidates, regardless of their Republican opponent’s record on the issue. Even the reliably liberal Tampa Bay Times says this charge is false. But it is repeated daily on the air and Sink is not backing down from it. Jolly has said all possible approaches to entitlement reform must be on the table, but insists we should keep our promises to everyone now receiving Social Security and those vested in the system. This latter only requires 10 quarters, so this hardly seems an aggressive approach.

Sink scores hits on Jolly for his work in Washington as a lobbyist, suggesting this vocation ranks in moral authority somewhere below aluminum siding salesmen, tax collectors, and cat burglars. She hams it up about lobbyists even though she has worked with lobbyists in her professional life and her campaign contribution list is speckled with the names of lobbyists.

The anti-Sink ads accuse her of being a fiscally irresponsible, big-spending liberal who was careless with the state’s money when she was Florida’s CFO. This is probably a bit of a stretch. Sink is indeed a liberal, and a supporter of Barrack Obama. But she has decades of experience in a successful career as a banker before entering politics. She knows more about and has more respect for how wealth is created than your average blue-sky Democrat. As one of my Republican pals puts it, “She’s a Democrat, but she’s not crazy.” (The obvious conservative response is that if she’s going to support Obama’s policies, she may as well be.)

One of the heaviest charges against Sink is that she is a friend of Obamacare, which is not at all popular in the district. She does support the law, but says it is far from perfect and changes need to be made to it. Jolly had said we should get rid of Obamacare altogether.

So far there have been only two debates in this contest, forums where candidates could get out their own messages if they chose to. But even here the candidates have shuffle-stepped around issues, have given opaque answers to clear questions, and have preferred name calling their opponents to clarifying what they would do if elected.

There may not be any more debates. Sink doesn’t like them, and you can sort of understand why considering how she stepped in her mess kit in a candidate forum Tuesday. When the issue of immigration reform came up, here was her contribution: “We have a lot of employers over on the beaches that rely upon workers, and especially in this high-growth environment, where are you going to get people to work to clean our hotel rooms and do our landscaping?”

Charming, eh? After the forum when reporters talked with the candidates, no one asked about this remarkable statement. Local media hardly mentioned it in their reporting on the forum. Some conservative publications and local Republican organizations called the statement racist, but the mainstream media largely ignored it. Jolly didn’t comment on it until Thursday when he called it “disgusting.” Of course the Sink camp said the comment was “taken out of context.” It wasn’t. It’s one of the clearest things Sink has said during the campaign.

TAS readers may take a moment here to amuse themselves by imagining the fertilizer storm that would have followed had the Republican candidate suggested, as Sink did, that American citizens won’t make beds or do yard work, and that immigrants from another country — oh, let’s just chose one at random, say Mexico — are only good for menial labor.

Another obvious question that local pressies ignored was, in the sixth year of the Obama recovery, where the economy continues to improve without getting any better, what “high-growth environment” was Sink talking about?

Every indication is this will be a close race in a swing district that is short of ideologues of left or right. Polls are especially difficult in this one as off-year, special elections draw few voters. A majority of those that have been done show Sink with a narrow lead, but determining who is a likely voter in a race like this one if far more art than science.

So we’ll just have to wait until March 11 to learn who will replace the late Bill Young in the U.S. House. Between now and then, CD13 residents will have to foreswear television or be buried in breathless and dishonest television ads. Between now and then, unless things change, there will be a great deal of heat, but very little light. The only winners in this unedifying fandango will be either Jolly or Sink, and local media executives who will be dining out on this one for a long time.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.