The GOP race to replace the late Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) has become a political soap opera that could jeopardize Republicans’ hold on the seat.
It has all the makings of a daytime drama: a widow disavowing her son due to opposing primary allegiances and a secret family kept hidden for decades only to surface a week before the contentious primary.
Democrats quickly cleared the field for former Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, but Republicans have endured weeks of infighting between lobbyist David Jolly, a former Young staffer, and state Rep. Kathleen Peters that will culminate when primary voters head to the polls on Jan. 14.
Jolly has raised twice as much as Peters for the race, and with the state legislator’s campaign floundering, state and national observers expect it’s Jolly who will be victorious Tuesday.
Still, the Young family drama and their split allegiances between Jolly and Peters have only shifted focus away from Democrats while, Sink, their likely nominee, “sits back, raises money, eats popcorn, and watches the fireworks explode,” as one Florida GOP operative put it.
A salacious weekend report from the Tampa Bay Times revealed a family Young had built in his youth and subsequently kept secret after marrying his former secretary Beverly Young.
The story threatens to tar the late congressman’s legacy in the state, and some in the district speculate the fallout could hit Jolly, who’s run as Young’s chosen candidate. Jolly received a glowing endorsement from Young’s widow, even featuring her in campaign ads.
In the Times’s report, Beverly Young is portrayed in a less-than-positive light, and Republicans in the district implicitly acknowledge the report could have some fallout for Jolly — though he insists it won’t have an impact on his race.
“That’s a family issue. It’s not an issue for my campaign,” he told The Hill. “I am proud to have the endorsement of a lot of people in this race.”
Beverly Young has claimed her husband said on his deathbed he wanted Jolly to replace him. When Bill Young Jr. announced he was backing Peters, his mother publicly lashed out at her son.
“You have hurt me beyond belief,” she said to her son after a candidate forum, later stating when asked about the remarks, “I have no relationship” with him.
But since the story published over the weekend and became the buzz of Florida political circles, those loyal to Young questioned why the details of his messy divorce and first family have only just emerged.
Tony DiMatteo, a former Pinellas County GOP chairman and Jolly supporter, suggested the timing of the report was suspicious and that sometimes when people “get desperate, they get negative.”
Many in Washington initially saw Peters as the better GOP prospect for a general election; she doesn’t carry lobbyist baggage and could neutralize any attacks focused on women’s issues that Democrats might lob against Jolly.
But Peters likely has little time — and even fewer resources — to make up lost ground. Peters currently only has $18,000 left in her campaign coffers.
Peters herself appears to be stretched thin. She’s her father’s primary caretaker and suffered a personal loss when her brother died from throat cancer during the holiday season. A major misstep came, sources say, when she accused Jolly of benefiting from ObamaCare through his lobbying work, a claim that was discounted by multiple sources and derided by Jolly himself.
“The advantage was initially hers, and then she made the mistake. We came back from the holidays and, boom, the election was on her,” said Florida GOP strategist Alex Patton. “When you make a blunder that was that big, it’s hard to recover from.”
Jolly, for his part, has been working to turn what both Democrats and his GOP opponents have seen as his greatest liability, his background as a lobbyist, into an advantage. In a district where Young was always lauded for bringing federal funds home, Jolly and his supporters have touted his lobbying work as helping to create jobs.
“We got in this race on a message of qualifications and experience, and I think it’s resonating with voters,” said Jolly.
Whoever emerges, Democrats see GOP drama as a boon to their chances in the March special election.
“The expensive, divisive primary slugfest between Washington lobbyist David Jolly and Tallahassee Rep. Kathleen Peters is turning off the independent swing voters who want to see an end to politics-as-usual,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman David Bergstein.
Democrats have sought to neutralize expected attacks from Jolly focused on ObamaCare by pointing to the campaign contributions he gave to Democrats who supported the law.
And Republicans point to Sink’s record as CFO, which they say hasn’t come under proper scrutiny yet. But they admit holding the seat will be a difficult — and expensive — battle.
“I think any Republican coming out of the primary is facing a significant challenge against Alex Sink. I don’t think any perceived advantage really exists,” Patton said.