A fast-approaching, divisive GOP primary has kick-started the sprint to a high-stakes 2014 House special election in Florida.
As early as this week, officials are scheduled to send primary ballots to voters for the race to succeed the late Republican Rep. C.W. Bill Young in the highly competitive 13th District. Both GOP candidates, lobbyist David Jolly and state Rep. Kathleen Peters, are expected to campaign over the Thanksgiving holiday.
But the Jan. 14 primary has already divided St. Petersburg-area GOP politicians, operatives and even members of Young’s family. Meanwhile, Democrats cleared the field for their likely nominee, Alex Sink.
The future nominees will soon endure a deluge from national parties in this long-held GOP district that President Barack Obama won by 1 point last year. The Republican nominee, especially, will have a responsibility as the first candidate of the 2014 cycle to test-drive the GOP’s case against Obama and the implementation of his health care overhaul law.
“If you’d asked me right after the shutdown, I’d say this was a slam dunk for the Democrats, but as it looks now, I think it’s going to be a very, very competitive race because it will be very nationalized,” said former National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Davis of Virginia. “And it will be the first time the voters can express themselves on the president and the Affordable Care Act [rollout].”
In recent cycles, most high-profile GOP primaries have featured a fight between an established candidate and a tea-party-backed Republican. That’s not the case in this contest.
Neither Peters nor Jolly fits the tea party mold, and the 13th District lacks an organized activist contingent. Also, Young served as a master appropriator in the region: Bringing federal money is part of politics there.
Both Jolly and Peters came up through the established ranks of local politics. So far, as revealed in interviews, neither Republican is tailoring his or her platform language to court the GOP’s tea party faction. Jolly repeatedly touts his “qualifications,” while Peters’ focus is her “experience.”
Jolly is running as a successor to Young’s legacy. A longtime Young staffer, he served as an aide on the House Appropriations Committee. The 22-term congressman’s widow, Beverly, endorsed Jolly; his son, Bill Young II, endorsed Peters.
“It is the ability to be effective where Mr. Young was,” Jolly said of his qualifications.
Part of Jolly’s résumé includes work as a lobbyist — an often-maligned term in campaign advertisements. Jolly brushed off the concerns, saying, “Some of the advocacy work I have done has contributed to job growth in the district.”
But Peters has quickly seized on her opponent’s lobbyist label.
“I’m a Pinellas County insider versus a Washington insider,” she said of Jolly. Peters is both a legislator and a former mayor.
Peters started the race at a strategic disadvantage. Jolly spent the first few weeks of his campaign raising money and securing local endorsements. By the time Peters announced her bid, hours before the filing deadline last week, Jolly had raised more than $150,000. He expects to raise $750,000 over the course of the primary.
Peters’ camp said she raised about $100,000 in her first week of campaigning. She said she hopes to raise about $300,000 for the primary.
Both candidates did agree on one item — their criticism of Sink. They have quickly hammered her as a carpetbagger who only moved to the district after Young died and the seat opened.
But even top Republicans, such as Davis, concede Sink is a quality recruit — one of the reasons the race will shift to national issues after the primary.
“I think Alex Sink’s biggest problem right now is not Alex Sink or what the research book says,” Republican pollster Brock McCleary said. “It’s Obamacare.”
A former chief financial officer for the state, Sink narrowly lost her bid for Florida governor in 2010. Her husband, Bill McBride, who died in December 2012, was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2002.
Sink has never worked on Capitol Hill, which will make it harder for Republicans to criticize her on national issues such as the health care law, according to Pinellas County Democratic Chairman Mark Hanisee.
“You can’t attack someone who hasn’t been in Washington,” he said of Sink and Obamacare.
But the GOP will almost certainly try, which is why so much is at stake for Republicans in the contest.