Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Politics

Five takeaways from Pinellas congressional election

A day after Alex Sink lost Pinellas County's congressional campaign, a national Democratic leader urged her to run again, saying "she will win in November."

But Sink herself was silent Wednesday, as were her aides, even as they began the unglamorous work of cleaning out their office headquarters.

Pinellas County's new congressman, Republican David Jolly, will be sworn in today to succeed his former boss, the late U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, who served nearly 43 years.

Here are five things to think about after Tuesday's special election, which saw an unprecedented $12 million in spending and captured national interest.

1 Republicans show up on election day.

Consider this: Of the 184,278 people who voted, about 71 percent voted before election day, either by mailing in ballots or showing up for early voting. This group contained more Republicans than Democrats. And even so, Sink led — she got 2,988 more votes than Jolly from this group.

But then came Tuesday's election day. This group was smaller — less than a third of the total. But of this group, 6,445 more people voted for Jolly than Sink — enough to push him to victory.

In an interview Wednesday, Jolly praised his campaign staff, which he said had predicted he would trail a bit before election day and still win in the end. "It kind of played out exactly as we expected."

2 There is a case to be made for Sink in November.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel made the case for a second Sink bid in a conference call Wednesday.

There will be a higher voter turnout in the regularly scheduled election later this year than the special election Sink just lost. Also, during the fall election, the relatively unpopular Republican Gov. Rick Scott will be on the ballot, and the Democratic candidate could be Charlie Crist, a St. Petersburg native.

"We're not going to approach her until she has time to kind of assess her options," Israel said. "But I believe that if Alex Sink decides to run, she will win in November and we will do everything, and I mean everything, to support her."

3 If not Sink, then who?

Jessica Ehrlich, who lost to Young in 2012, could be the Democratic front-runner. Other Democrats could be considered, such as Pinellas Commissioners Charlie Justice, Janet Long and Ken Welch, but most took a pass at the race just a few months ago when there wasn't an incumbent to face.

Ehrlich is an attorney who had already started running for the seat again when she was apparently urged to step aside for the better-financed and better-known Sink. According to the most recent report, Ehrlich still had more than $120,000 in her campaign account. She told the Times she would discuss her plans soon.

4 Jolly says he will reach out to Democrats.

Sink claimed Jolly had "extreme" views, and some observers called him more conservative than his mentor, the late Rep. Young.

But now as a congressman, Jolly said: "I will demonstrate by the way I serve that I intend to work with Republicans and Democrats and I hope that that will be recognized … we're one Pinellas County.

"Yesterday was not a mandate for this community," he said. "It was a very close race. I respect that my commitment is to work for every one of those who voted for us, and those who chose another candidate."

Jolly also campaigned on the need for good constituent service, one of Young's hallmarks. He said he would be working this week to set up local congressional offices and staff. He said he liked the idea of having more than one office in the district to ensure good access.

He also said he would be working to develop a policy agenda of four to five main items, some of which would relate to health care, a key campaign issue. He also said he has several local issues to attack, like a homeless veterans project, beach renourishment in Treasure Island and Clearwater's efforts to fight human trafficking.

5 Maybe the Thonotosassa thing mattered.

Sink moved from Hillsborough County into Pinellas County's 13th Congressional District in hopes of representing it. That's one issue that didn't get mentioned much in the campaign commercials, but Jolly said he thinks it was "a heart and soul issue" on voters' minds.

"For them it was important to see that this seat stay in Pinellas County hands."

Times Washington Bureau Chief Alex Leary contributed to this report.

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