Primary has GOP scrambling

After their bruising primary election comes to an end Tuesday night, Republicans will be quickly scrambling to reframe the race to succeed the late Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) as a referendum on ObamaCare and Democrat Alex Sink’s political past. 

For Republicans, the end of the special Florida GOP primary comes as a relief. The costly race has put them even further behind in their efforts to hold onto the swing district. It’s battered their likely nominee, former Young staffer David Jolly, and muffled what they believe is a strong message on the rocky rollout of the healthcare law. 

ADVERTISEMENT
Now, a contest once thought to be a bellwether for 2014 and a test of ObamaCare’s impact in the fall looks like it could become another nasty, localized battle between two flawed candidates. And if that’s the case, Republicans are right to worry. 

“It’s an expensive problem to solve for a seat that’s not a must-win,” one national GOP strategist involved in House races told The Hill. 

For Democrats, winning the March special election is critical to begin neutralizing the expected line of attacks this fall on ObamaCare.

For Republicans, who have a 17-seat advantage heading into the midterms, holding the seat isn’t a necessity. But an unexpected win would be welcome evidence that attacks on the law are the recipe to add to their majority. 

Jolly, a former lobbyist, is expected to enter the race as a heavy underdog. And the contentious primary has, Republicans admit, distracted voters from both ObamaCare problems and Sink’s baggage from her time as Florida’s chief financial officer. 

Fred Piccolo, a Florida GOP strategist and former congressional chief of staff, said the first task for Republicans should be to frame the former Bank of America executive as beholden to outside interests and a bad fit for the district.

“It’s a rare opportunity where Republicans can say, look, my opponent is out of touch with what happens on a daily basis,” but they have that opportunity here, Piccolo said.

“You can label Alex Sink as a corporate fat-cat banker who made a lot of money off the backs of the middle class and is out of touch with the district’s voters,” he added. 

In particular, Republicans plan to highlight money the state’s pension fund lost during her time as CFO and a taxpayer-funded plane Republicans believe she might have misused. They will also hit her for her time as president of a Florida bank that later went on to become Bank of America.

Democrats say they plan to tie the Republican to the national GOP, and particularly Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget, which Democrats have used in attacks against Republicans all year. They say the budget cuts Social Security benefits, and that’s an argument they believe will play particularly well in Florida’s 13th District, where the population — and particularly the likely voting population — skews older.

Mac Stipanovich, a prominent Florida GOP lobbyist, argued  Jolly could emerge from the party contest stronger and battle-tested, though.

“The primary may have helped him, particularly if his opponents will come on board publicly,” he said.

In fact, Jolly has used much of the primary to air positive biographical TV spots and to build a narrative characterizing his lobbying experience as an advantage, declaring that it’s helped bring jobs to people, and a deep knowledge of how Washington works makes him well-suited to get things done in Congress.

But Young family drama that played out during the primary could haunt him into the general election. A Tampa Bay Times story on Young’s first family, which he kept largely hidden, and unpleasant comments from his widow, Beverly, could neutralize one of Jolly’s main advantages in the race — his claim to Young’s legacy.

Another wildcard in the race is money. While Democratic groups pledge to enthusiastically spend on the race — an official for the Democratic group EMILY’s List called it a “top priority” — Republican groups are less eager about getting in. The district is in the expensive Tampa media market, and Republicans are reluctant to spend on a race that’s not a sure bet for them.

Strategists for a handful of GOP groups that play prominently in House races indicated privately to The Hill they could take a pass, at least initially. Groups want to wait to see whether Jolly can close the gap with Sink and note they’re unlikely to spend in the special election when they’ll have another shot a few months later, when the winner is up for a full term and when Republican turnout may be higher.

Ultimately, Piccolo warned, “this is Alex’s race to lose.”

“I don’t think [Republicans] properly understand how well-known and well-liked she is,” he added.