David Jolly, a former staffer to Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), easily won the special Republican primary for his late boss’s seat on Tuesday night, setting up a fierce fight with Democratic nominee Alex Sink.
State Rep. Kathleen Peters, the favorite of many establishment Republicans and female members of Congress, finished second, while veteran Mark Bircher took third in the primary.
The primary outcome sets up a battle in the March 11 special general election that’s expected to be as much focused on the candidates themselves as their respective parties’ messages on issues like ObamaCare and Social Security.
Sink characterized herself as a bipartisan bridge-builder in a statement issued on primary night, where she also slammed congressional gridlock for "standing in the way of tackling challenges that impact our lives" — like flood insurance rate spikes, an issue on the minds of coastal Floridians.
“Our campaign is about one important message: bringing Republicans and Democrats together to focus on challenges that matter most to Pinellas," she said. "As Florida’s Chief Financial Officer and a business leader, my life has always been guided by bipartisan, results-oriented values."
Though the race was initially considered a testing-ground for the party’s issue-based attacks in advance of November, Jolly’s nomination shifts the focus for Democrats to the candidate’s background as a lobbyist. Republicans plan to retaliate with attacks on Sink’s time as chief financial officer of Florida and a Bank of America president.
Within moments of Jolly's win, Democrats were already out hammering him for helping "stack the deck for special interests," as Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) put it in a statement.
“While successful businesswoman Alex Sink has spent her career working across the aisle to get things done, Washington lobbyist David Jolly helped stack the deck for special interests and ignore Pinellas families. Whether it was lobbying for offshore drilling or supporting an end to the Medicare guarantee that would raise costs on seniors, David Jolly’s agenda would hurt Pinellas families," Israel said.
He added that Democrats expect "national Republicans and shadowy groups funded by the Koch Brothers" to spend millions attacking Sink with the same offense used against her during her losing gubernatorial bid in 2010.
But Democratic outside groups say they're committed to answering those attacks. One main super-PAC engaged in House races, House Majority PAC, will “do whatever is necessary” to defend Sink, its executive director said in a statement.
“The choice for voters in Pinellas County couldn’t be more clear: Alex Sink, a business leader and common sense problem solver, and David Jolly, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist who worked as a shill for the highest-bidding special interest,” Alixandria Lapp said.
While Democratic groups have pledged their full support to Sink, it's unclear what outside groups will go to bat for Jolly, a disparity that could enhance her financial advantage over the Republican. Sink reported over $1 million cash on hand for the race in her pre-primary report, while Jolly had just $141,000 in the bank.
Florida GOP Chairman Lenny Curry touted Jolly as “a strong candidate, who will carry on the legacy of Bill Young by fighting every day for the citizens of Pinellas County.”
“While Alex Sink owns a record of failure as CFO and supports the failed policies of the Obama Administration, including Obamacare, David Jolly will fight for small businesses and the middle class while bringing common sense to Washington,” he added.
Republicans are working to frame the race as Sink’s to lose, and they openly admit that Jolly’s nomination makes it more difficult for the party to focus on the rocky rollout and expected future impacts of the health care law, which they see as political winners both in the district and nationwide.
It will be a heavy lift, GOP strategists say, to retain the seat, which has long been a top Democratic target and became a prime pickup opportunity with Young’s passing last year.
Democrats are already pointing to Jolly’s lobbying record, and have highlighted his work for a company that promoted expanded oil drilling as evidence he’d be beholden to outside interests if elected.
While Peters, as a female candidate, may have had an easier time answering Democratic attacks focused on women’s issues, Jolly is likely to face significant offense from the Democratic group EMILY’s List on those issues, as they’ve endorsed Sink and named this race a “top priority.”
And one of Jolly’s greatest advantages in the race, his ability to run on Bill Young’s legacy, has been tainted by damaging reports about Young’s first family, which he kept largely hidden during his congressional career.
His widow, Beverly, came across negatively in one such piece, and most Republicans agree her comments nullified her ability to act as a surrogate for Jolly — and in fact may have called into question for some Jolly’s claim to Young’s legacy.
Democrats also believe tying Jolly to Rep. Paul RyanPaul RyanTrump: ObamaCare replacement coming in 'a couple of weeks' GOP Congress unnerved by Trump bumps Top Dem: GOP is terrified of Trump MORE’s (R-Wis.) budget, which they say cuts Social Security benefits, could be a winning argument in the district, which skews older.
But Republicans are gearing up to frame Sink as out-of-touch with the district because of her background in banking, and believe a focus on her time as Florida CFO — particularly money the state’s pension fund lost during her tenure — could be damaging to her popularity, which remains an advantage in the race.
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden (Ore.) immediately put the focus on Sink’s time as CFO in his statement congratulating Jolly on his win.
“Pinellas County families will quickly learn about Alex Sink’s costly record as Chief Financial Officer of Florida where under her watch the state’s pension fund lost $27 billion in value. Whether it is her support of Obamacare or her dismal record of wasting money in Florida, Pinellas voters will know that Alex Sink is a risk they can’t afford in Congress,” said Walden.
Jolly had maintained a solid lead in the polls in recent weeks, and posted a significant fundraising advantage over his opponents prior to the primary, which he used to maintain an advertising presence on television since mid-December.
That, along with missteps made by Peters, his main opponent, helped deliver him the win. Despite backing from a number House Republican women, local Republicans said it was clear Peters’ campaign was stretched thin, and an accusation she made against Jolly suggesting he benefitted from the passage of the health care law ended up backfiring on her campaign.
Despite the contentious primary, Republicans say Jolly emerged on solid footing for the general, as he spent much of the contest working to frame his lobbying background in a positive light, charging he helped businesses create jobs.
--This piece was updated at 7:53 p.m.