Fewer than two hours after lobbyist David Jolly won the GOP nomination in Florida's 13th District, word leaked that his campaign had bought a modest $50,000 in airtime for the special election.
But Jolly's Democratic rival has already done the same — with an advertisement buy six times larger than his.
The lopsided spending illustrates the trajectory of the special election to replace the late Republican Rep. C.W. Bill Young.
The Democratic nominee, former Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, begins the general election with a massive financial advantage, boosted by cash-flush outside groups already behind her bid. Jolly must race to catch up after a competitive primary — and Republicans fear he won't have much help from national conservative outside groups.
Still, their apathy alarms Republicans in Washington, D.C.
“Alex Sink is starting this race with a million-dollar cash advantage,” a national House Republican operative said. “Without Republican outside group help, it’s going to be difficult to keep this seat.”
At the same time, Democrats are ebullient from their cash advantage in the race. But the stakes are huge for the party, and political analyst Stuart Rothenberg recently noted that the 13th District special election is a must-win race for Democrats.
The race is an opportunity for House Democrats to reduce the number of seats — 17 — their party must net in order to take control of that chamber. Even if Democrats can't win the House this cycle, they perceive Sink as the kind of candidate who could hold the seat in the fall election for a full term and in future cycles.
Democrats have eyed this seat for several cycles. The party has viewed it as a prime pickup opportunity, but believed no candidate could defeat Young as an incumbent. The congressman died in October.
House Majority PAC, a super PAC committed to electing Democrats to the House, is closely monitoring the St. Petersburg-based race. The League of Conservation Voters donated to Sink's campaign. EMILY's List, one of Sink's most vocal advocates, is poised to blitz the district with direct mail.
Once again, Democrats have a greater interest in the race that goes beyond the district. In recent cycles, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic National Committee have turned special elections into fundraising juggernauts for the party, reaping cash benefits that go beyond one race.
Republican outside groups are hesitant to make a similar investment in this district because the Tampa television market is expensive. Some Republican operatives are still mulling whether involvement is worth the cost or the embarrassment of the loss.
After all, the GOP has a 17-seat cushion going into the fall midterm elections. Republicans are increasingly confident about their ability to hold the House, and this race would be just one loss. What's more, many Republicans are concerned about Jolly’s background as a lobbyist.
Despite that issue, Jolly impressed many Washington Republicans by running an organized campaign during the primary. While his fundraising is small compared to Sink’s haul, Jolly pulled in solid numbers and spent it wisely on television. And now that the primary is over, he can take advantage of national donors who were previously on the sidelines.
“We are confident that we will have the resources and the support to continue to get our message out and reach voters of the CD13," Jolly spokeswoman Sarah Bascom wrote in an email. "We hit the ground running in the primary and are doing the same for the general."
Meanwhile, the DCCC is preparing for a spending onslaught from deep-pocketed conservative groups — regardless of whether it ever arrives.
“We expect that national Republicans and groups funded by the Koch Brothers will pour millions of dollars into this race to spread the same debunked lies about Alex Sink that Rick Scott used against her in 2010," DCCC spokeswoman Emily Bittner wrote in an email, referencing Sink's previous gubernatorial run.