'Til Tuesday: Sink, Jolly & Overby

click to enlarge The candidates during a Clearwater debate last week. - Kevin Tighe
Kevin Tighe
The candidates during a Clearwater debate last week.

When you ask some political analysts to break down next Tuesday’s special election, they give multiple reasons why it’s a hard one to figure out.

It’s the first time there’s been an open seat in the CD13 seat in nearly 44 years, following the death of 22-term incumbent Bill Young. It’s also the most expensive congressional campaign in Tampa Bay history, with expenditures at over $8 million as of Monday. Add the fact that neither candidate has spent extensive amounts of time in the district in recent years, plus the odd happenstance that the race is being conducted during spring training, and you’ve got a contest so unique it borders on preposterous.

In any event, the incessant television ads that have been running in heavy rotation and distorting the records and/or platforms of Jolly and Sink will cease and desist after this Tuesday — until the fall, at least, when we could very well go through this entire process all over again.
But the mad scramble is understandable. As earlier noted, the CD13 seat (which used to be CD11) hasn’t had a competitive election since Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw starred in Love Story. Although the district has skewed more liberal in recent years, Bill Young kept on keeping on, even if he was unable in recent years to bring home the proverbial congressional bacon as much as he had in previous decades. (The House of Representatives banned earmarks in 2010.) But after Young passed away at the age of 82 last October, his absence led to a matchup few could have envisioned in years past: Sink vs. Jolly, with a potential wildcard in Libertarian candidate Lucas Overby.

There’s intense national interest in the race, because a) it’s literally the only national election in the country happening right now, and b) it’s that rare thing in American politics, a swing seat district. Accordingly, NBC News requested the chance to broadcast last week’s Clearwater Chamber of Commerce forum with the network’s marquee political reporter Chuck Todd as moderator.

But the Sink camp rejected the format, the Democrat preferring to keep the focus local as had been originally planned, with USF political science professor Susan McManus asking the questions. Some critics scoffed, suspecting that Sink might still be smarting from Todd’s comment that she had run the worst race of any campaign in 2010 when she narrowly lost to Rick Scott. In any event, her refusal to accept a nationally televised debate produced a raft of negative stories locally and nationally. (Then again, CL has also been rejected by Sink. The paper has spent over three weeks trying unsuccessfully to procure an interview with the Democratic candidate for this story.)

Sink’s tactic seems to be about staying as safe as possible. During a debate on Bay News 9 in February, she pounded home the idea that she would be representing Pinellas’ small businesses in Washington, a theme that reflects her mostly centrist approach. Though she occasionally attacks Jolly for his changing positions, she basically farms out the hard-edged stuff to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), who have been relentless in attacking Jolly’s lobbyist background.

For his part, Jolly has hammered away at Sink for being an outsider (she moved to the district after she decided to run for the congressional seat) who will be more loyal to Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi than Pinellas residents. An ad playing in heavy rotation from the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) features images of Sink with Obama and Pelosi.

“Alex Sink’s loyalty is to them, not Florida,” the narrator says in sinister tones. “Why else would she continue to support Obamacare?”
Like many Democrats already on the campaign trail in 2014, Sink is not talking that much about the president’s signature domestic issue. In December at a Tiger Bay event, she said, “The rollout has been a disaster, the administration has failed us, but I believe that Americans deserve the right to health insurance and affordable healthcare,” winning applause from the audience.

On medical marijuana, she said in the Bay News 9 debate that she supports the measure, but not if it would lead to pot dispensaries on every corner (an extremely unlikely scenario). On immigration, last week she set off a kerfuffle in conservative online media when she said, “Immigration reform is important in our country. It’s one of the main agenda items of the beaches’ chamber of commerce, for obvious reasons, because we have a lot of employers over on the beaches that rely upon workers, and especially in this high-growth environment, where are you going to get people to work to clean our hotel rooms or do our landscaping? And we don’t need to put those employers in a position of hiring undocumented and illegal workers.”

She then went on to discuss the plight of “the undocumented high school valedictorian” who went on to law school but still is in danger of being deported. “That’s not right,” she said. It appeared she was speaking about Jose Godinez-Samperio, the Armwood High and Florida State graduate who passed the Florida bar, but has not been allowed to practice law in Florida because of his undocumented status. His case is before the Florida Supreme Court, and has been championed by Senator Bill Nelson and Congresswoman Kathy Castor as evidence that the immigration system is broken.

But while Jolly said nothing at the time, the GOP attack machine seized on the “landscaping” remark, turning it into fodder for Fox and Friends and generating an email blast from the Sarasota Republican Party headlined “Racist Liberal Alex Sink.”

Perhaps the best thing Sink has going for her is that she’s a Democrat with tremendous name recognition. Assuming she’s got her base in check, she’s been pushing hard for the independent nonpartisan vote, emphasizing that she worked well with Republicans while in Tallahassee as chief financial officer.

In contrast to Sink’s strategy of appealing to the Pinellas County mold of moderates, David Jolly has been running on a “severe conservative” platform, to use Mitt Romney’s tortured phrase. But the impression that Jolly is more right-wing doctrinaire than his mentor, Bill Young, is greatly exaggerated, says Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of political science at USFSP.

“I think anybody would be hard pressed to say anything other than that Bill Young was a very staunch conservative,” Paulson says.

Jolly reacted with disdain when asked about the Young/Jolly comparision at a press availability with Marco Rubio at a Seminole senior center in early February. “The folks who are saying that are politically motivated,” he said. And by “the folks” he meant the editorial writers at St. Pete’s local newspaper, who had officially endorsed (or “recommended” in Times-speak) Sink in the previous day’s paper. Tim Nickens, the editor of editorials for the newspaper, had also penned a column in January entitled “David Jolly is no Bill Young.”

“It’s ironic to me that the Tampa Bay Times is the arbiter of Mr. Young’s legacy,” Jolly added.

(Although it’s a familiar trope for Republicans from Sarasota up to Tallahassee to maintain that the Times is biased, it was interesting to note that shortly after WTSP-Channel 10’s Preston Rudie broke the story that as a 16-year-old, Jolly had hit and killed a pedestrian in a driving accident in which he was not found at fault, the lead on the Times website for several hours last Tuesday read, “David Jolly Killed a man,” before being changed to a less provocative headline.)

Although Jolly’s refusal to move even a little bit to the center during this campaign has surprised some observers, others believe his unswerving conservatism is a smart tactic, helping to ensure that the GOP (and especially its Tea Party base) is turned on enough to vote.

Although many lawmakers have left office to make millions as lobbyists, the inverse doesn’t usually occur, with Jolly’s short stint in the limelight illustrating why. His former means of employment has left him vulnerable to accusations that he lobbied for privatization of Social Security and offshore drilling (both of which were strongly supported by St. Pete businessman James MacDougald, co-chair of Jolly’s finance team and head of the Free Enterprise Nation). Jolly strongly denies he ever lobbied for either, saying he filled out disclosure forms indicating otherwise only because he had “over-complied.”

But Jolly has a smooth manner on the stump, and looks like a Hollywood casting director’s concept of a congressional candidate. And he’s wonky, more than happy to talk about any and every issue that a congressman might ultimately vote on.

Despite his strong conservative platform, he’s made sure to indicate in candidate forums that he’s broken with the national GOP on a number of items, but that’s called self-preservation. On issues like national flood insurance and the Paul Ryan budget plan, what D.C. Republicans would like to do is in direct contrast with the sentiment of most Pinellas seniors, a highly reliable voting bloc.

The question of who will turn up to vote (and who has already voted early) looms large. Historically in off-year elections, Republicans come out in far greater numbers, with 2010 being the apotheosis of that trend, when the Tea Party-led surge got Rick Scott and Marco Rubio elected to the top of the ticket in Florida, with local Republicans also dominating in state and local elections around Tampa Bay.

But that was your old Democratic Party in Florida, some Republicans observe.

“I think the dynamics have changed with the Obama races in ’08 and ’12 where the Democratic Party is closing the gap with the Republicans in the ground game,” says former Pinellas County Republican Party Chairman Tony DiMatteo.

“I think the Libertarian is the wild card,” he adds. “Where are those people going?”

Perhaps the biggest story out of the whole race is the invasion of super PACS, which can raise and spend unlimited money on politics, not just in the district, but also the entire Tampa Bay television market, the biggest in Florida. Both Jolly and Sink bemoan the attack ads but have shown no interest in calling them off, though Jolly did hint that he wished there was a way for candidates to be more responsible for what their supporters say.

In last week's debate in Clearwater, moderator Susan McManus asked about the importance of fact-checkers to a campaign. Libertarian candidate Lucas Overby (see separate story) elicited the biggest round of applause when he said, “I don’t think I’ve made any wrong statements about either of these two. We haven’t had to make any corrections. Actually, I don’t talk about these guys ever,” he said, looking at his two major party challengers.

Then McManus brought up the outside groups, which in this race include Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, though the majority of ads have come from the two major parties’ campaign committees.

“I wish the outside groups would stop running ads on my behalf,” Overby said, eliciting laughs for what was apparently a sincere statement. “I really wish the outside groups would stop running ads … we’re sick to death of them.”

The good thing is that they will cease after next Tuesday.

Until the fall. 

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