Election Coverage / Politics

Florida Race for House Sets Stage for 2014


CLEARWATER, Fla. — For as long as most people here can remember, Representative C. W. Bill Young presided over this slice of Florida’s west coast, tending assiduously to veterans and retirees, crystalline beaches, and a booming population. By the time he died at 82 two months ago after 43 years in Congress, Mr. Young was the longest-serving Republican in Congress, and with good reason: He was untouchable at the ballot box.

Mr. Young’s personal dominance kept the seat frozen in place for four decades. But beneath the surface, changes in the area’s electoral map including an influx of Democrats — some of them gay voters and young people — have diluted the share of moderate Republicans, turning it into one of the rare commodities in American politics: a true swing district. Now, his absence has set off a contest in the first race of the 2014 battle for control of Congress, with both parties hoping for a victory and watching carefully how President Obama’s health care law may affect the outcome.

Determined to snatch the long-awaited open seat in the March 11 special election, Democrats effectively cleared the field for Alex Sink, a former chief financial officer of Florida, who ran for governor and lost in 2010. Ms. Sink did not even live in the district, Pinellas County, in October; she packed up and moved one county over last month.

Shortly after, three little-known Republican candidates jumped into the fray. They find themselves competing not only against one another in the Jan. 14 primary but against the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season, in which bah-humbug advertising can spoil the merriment. A Libertarian candidate, Lucas Overby, also joined the contest.

Already the race is being viewed as an early litmus test, particularly for the Democrats. Amid the torrent of tribulation still facing Mr. Obama’s health care program, the Democrats are pining for a dollop of good news. A winner here could stoke momentum nationally and in Florida heading into the November election, political analysts said.

“This is as close to a bellwether district as there is in the House,” said David Wasserman, the editor in charge of House races for The Cook Political Report. “If Democrats can’t do it with a great candidate like Alex Sink, they simply won’t be in a position to compete in 2014. That’s why this race is so critical for both sides, but especially for Democrats.”

At the moment, Democrats appear to have an advantage. Unlike her Republican opponents, Ms. Sink will not face a primary. This allows her to aim her campaign cash and speeches solely toward voters from both parties who will cast ballots in March.

It helps that Ms. Sink, 65, a former bank executive who is viewed as a pragmatist with business sense, is well known in Florida politics. She was elected the state’s chief financial officer in 2006. When she ran for governor, she lost narrowly to Rick Scott, a wealthy health care executive who parlayed Tea Party enthusiasm into victory and ran hard against the national health care law. High name recognition is particularly important in a special election, in which lesser-known candidates struggle to overcome truncated campaign schedules and low voter turnout.

Demographics are also beginning to bode well, or at least better, for Democrats, as more Democratic and independent voters have moved into the district, nudging it more toward the political center.

Independents make up 28 percent of voters in Pinellas County. Republicans account for 37 percent and Democrats for 35 percent. Mr. Obama squeaked out victories here in 2008 and 2012, and Democrats won two recent races, one for St. Petersburg mayor and the other for a State House seat, both previously held by Republicans.

Republicans have taken note of the shifting terrain. Despite their desire to hold tight to Mr. Young’s former seat, party leaders tried and failed to draw a top-tier candidate. “With all due respect to Alex Sink, I’m not sure she scared them all out of the race,” said Screven Watson, a Democratic strategist and a former executive director of the state’s Democratic Party. “Part of it was they have seen that the voting behaviors of this area have changed.”

Not one of the three Republicans who are running — David Jolly, 41, a lobbyist and a former general counsel to Mr. Young; Kathleen Peters, 52, a former small-town mayor and a first-term State House member; and Mark Bircher, 60, a lawyer and a retired brigadier general with the Marine Corps Reserve — is a household name.
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Still, Ms. Sink must contend again with Mr. Obama’s health care law, an issue that hurt her in 2010 and makes many retirees in this district uneasy. Three years later, with the president’s popularity near a low point and his health plan still under siege, Republicans are once more attempting to lash her to the issue.

“You can run from your support of Obamacare, but you certainly cannot hide,” the Republican congressional campaign committee said in a mock advice pamphlet that went on to criticize Ms. Sink and other Democrats who supported the president’s health care plan.

The health care issue is so combustible that Mr. Jolly and Ms. Peters have also started hurling it at each other in campaign mailers and at news conferences.

In an interview at her campaign office here, Ms. Sink called the health care rollout a “mess” and said the logjams needed to be fixed.

“My word, coming from my world, the business world, doing these computer rollouts and designing these new systems is highly complex,” she said. “It’s been very poorly handled and not very well thought out.” But she added, “We can’t go back to where we were.”

She emphasized her track record as a “problem solver,” a trait that she said was sorely needed in Washington. “I’ve always worked well across party lines,” Ms. Sink said. “The most important assignment is to be a good listener.”

But her abrupt move into Pinellas County , also opened her up to barbs.

“That left the impression that she is sort of hedging her bets: Should she lose it, will she be a resident one year from now?” said Darryl Paulson, a professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg.

Mr. Jolly was one of the first to jump on the address change.

“The voters of Pinellas County did not ask Alex Sink to move here and run,” Mr. Jolly said in an interview. “She is a candidate of the national party machine.”

Mr. Jolly, who has worked for years in Washington and counts that as a benefit, is being portrayed by his opponents as part of the Beltway problem. Ms. Peters has no Washington experience but has said she best knows the county and its issues. Mr. Bircher has said he excels at running large organizations. For now, Republican loyalties in the district seem to be divided between Mr. Jolly and Ms. Peters.

With absentee ballots already in the hands of Republican voters — in a district where many vote absentee — the candidates’ biggest challenge remains penetrating the holiday din.

“Competing with Christmas cards, catalogs and after-Christmas sales is a very big challenge,” said David Johnson, a Republican consultant in Florida.

March will come quickly on the calendar, he said, and the outcome is sure to resonate. “Democrats have been waiting of a very long time; they are very hungry,” he said.

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8 years ago

I am a Fla resident & would NOT vote for Ms Sink because she will just become another Obama puppet. We need to retain control of the House to deal with Obama’s socialist policies and try to fix the problems he has caused with welfare (new lax requirements & abuse), Medicare (theft of $716 billion to fund Medicaid), Obamacare, over regulation & no job creation.

8 years ago

Alex Sink did a damn fine job as CFO in FL and it was a shame she lost to Scott in that governor’s race. As a registered Republican, I can not see her as a “Democrat;” I can only see her as an excellent, proven public servant worthy of my vote.

8 years ago
Reply to  Jsrlnd


The article doesn’t call Ms. Sink a Democrat. It does however say her selection by the national Republican Party may provide the Democrats with an opening that shouldn’t have. Big difference. While Ms. Sink may be an excellent, proven public servant, it doesn’t seem, at least from the article, that she has much local support in the district. If you’re from Pinellas County, could you tell us why that is? Why are the locals split between Mr. Jolly and Ms. Peters, instead of firmly supporting Ms. Sink?

8 years ago
Reply to  PaulE

Ms Sink IS a Democrat.

What amazes me is that someone can move into a district solely to run for office. Hillary Clinton did that in New York so she could run for the Senate. I think there should be a residency requirement of at least 2 or 3 years prior to running for office. A candidate can’t really have much invested in the constituents of that district if they haven’t lived there.

8 years ago
Reply to  HAM

Yes, I agree HAM. If someone isn’t willing to live in an area for at least 2 to 3 years before running for any elective office, they should be disqualified from running. What can they possibly know about the needs of the constituents they supposedly would be serving, if they just moved in shorty before launching their campaigns? Absolutely nothing!

8 years ago

This is what I got from this article:

1) There was no potential succession plan in place, by the Party, should the 82 year old member of Congress die. Come one people, this is politics 101 stuff. I had a Senator die in office from my state within the last 18 months and the Democrats had a warm body, that was guaranteed to win named in 24 hours. Where’s the planning on the Republican side?

2) Rather than rely on a list of potential, home-grown candidates to draw from, the national Party just decided, with apparently little or no input from the local community, who would be the best option to run. How nice. (That was sarcasm folks.) This meant dropping in an outsider with name recognition and hoping that no one would be objecting big time in the district. We’ve seen this a few times in the last four or five years and it doesn’t end well.

3) If one of the other three challengers is a better fit and more acceptable to the district, why isn’t the Republican Party backing him or her 100 percent and telling Ms. Sink to drop out? 2014 is critical. We don’t have the luxury of the GOP leadership doing their “standard game plan” and blowing yet another race.

Bob M.
8 years ago

Who is the candidate who is for smaller, limited CONSTITUTIONAL government, individual liberty and responsibility, etc., etc.? Who does AMAC recommend, or is it too early?

8 years ago
Reply to  Bob M.

Bob M.,

Given the special election is March 11, the question isn’t is it too early, but rather is it too late. Two short months. The article states that the Republicans there are divided between Mr. Jolly and Ms. Peters, so we’re looking at a split vote and that rarely benefits the party involved.

8 years ago

Just goes to show that ms.sink doesn’t care much for the people she would like to represent as much as she would rather take care of her own interests. Otherwise she would have been living in that district long before the representative Youngs death.

8 years ago
Reply to  Douglas

On the contrary, the most wonderful healers go where the needs are greatest.

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