Campaign Crawlers

A Jolly Time for Central Florida Republicans

St. Petersburg narrowly stays GOP—Sink sunk again.

By 3.12.14

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For the first time in 44 years, someone other than Republican Bill Young will represent Florida’s 13th congressional district in the U.S. House. That someone will be Republican David Jolly, a 41-year-old lawyer who worked as an aide to Young for years before becoming a lobbyist and businessman.

An 82-year-old Young, a senior and well-liked member of Congress, announced last October that he would not seek a 23rd term. He died a week later, setting up Tuesday’s special election to fill his seat. It was a close business, with Jolly edging out Democrat Alex Sink by 88,294 votes to 84,877, a margin of a little more than 3,400 votes. Libertarian Lucas Overby scooped up 8,799 votes. The 40 percent turnout was higher than most expected, higher than your average off-year, special election.

The dimension of the narrow win roughly reflects the narrow registration advantage Republicans enjoy in the district, throwing into doubt the idea that this special election informs us about the much talked about but almost never sighted “national mood.”

This being the first congressional election of the year, both national parties and a passel of outside groups spent an almost incomprehensible amount of money on the race, somewhere between $10 and $12 million, depending on which numbers you believe. This is almost certainly more money than Bill Young spent in all of his 22 previous congressional campaigns combined. With 186,000 votes cast, spending amounted to about $70 a vote. The result was that a congressional district that has been represented in the U.S. House by a Republican for 64 years will still be represented by a Republican.

Most of this campaign money was spent on negative ads, some of which even the candidates the ads were whooping up didn’t like. But candidates are powerless to do anything about them because election law prohibits candidates from coordinating in any way with outside groups. And after all these millions were spent, and Tampa Bay area television viewers much abused by unending negative ads, many of them back-to-back, the election results were what could have been predicted by sending an intern down to the supervisor of elections office and inquiring after the party registrations in the district. Republicans enjoy about a two percent registration advantage in the district. Jolly won by 49 to 47 percent. Basically Jolly and Sink won the votes of people in their own party and split the independents. About the only thing this election tells the keen political observer about the fall campaigns in that they will follow the summer.

One of those fall campaigns will be for this very seat. Tuesday’s special election was to fill the remainder of Young’s final two-year term. Jolly, with the advantages of incumbency, will almost certainly run for re-election in November. Sink very likely will not try again. She is not a good campaigner, not a cuddly candidate, and doesn’t seem to enjoy campaigning. She lost a governor’s race in 2010 to Rick Scott, who is a capable executive but ill at ease, often inarticulate, and humorless on the stump. She has now lost an election in which she had a name recognition advantage and lots of money to make her case. It’s hard to see how she could do better in November than she did yesterday.

One of the things political consultants, pundits, and talking heads wanted this election to answer was how big an issue will Obamacare be. How good for Republicans? How bad for Democrats? Jolly said he would like to see Obamacare overturned. Sink conceded there are problems with Obamacare, but said we should keep it and fix it. Jolly against — Sink for. Clear enough. But before Tuesday we already knew Republicans mostly don’t like Obamacare and Democrats mostly do. We still know that, but not much more. If those millions were spent to gather political intelligence for the fall, they were a very poor investment. Bay area television viewers were sorely inconvenienced for not very much. This election, contrary to billing, turned out to be very light on signs and portents. 

In his acceptance speech Jolly said he would be supportive of entrepreneurs and job creators. And would do what he can to protect Americans’ personal liberties. He said the right things about reducing the size of government. “We will never concede our freedom to those who dare to take it from us.” Geez, wonder who he was talking about there? His remarks, articulately delivered, were such as to please conservatives.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.