Now that Democrat Alex Sink has jumped into a Pinellas congressional race with a primary election less than three months away, pressure is mounting on Republicans to prove they too have a candidate with fundraising might and potent name recognition.
Sink told the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday she's running for the congressional seat vacated by longtime Republican U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, who died Oct. 18.
The National Republican Congressional Committee struck back within hours, launching a website slamming "Sink's long career of wasting Florida voters' money with no remorse."
Local Republicans added plenty of carpetbagger barbs about Sink's plan to move from Thonotosassa in Hillsborough County into Pinellas — state Sen. Jack Latvala called it "the height of arrogance."
But all acknowledged that Sink, a former Florida chief financial officer who narrowly lost the governor's race to Republican Rick Scott, has wide name recognition and fundraising power.
That means the GOP must show it has someone who is "at least as good a match, you might say, in name recognition and the ability to raise money on their side of the aisle," said Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, the Republican candidate with likely the best name recognition and presumably a formidable fundraising network (he worked closely with the campaigns of George W. and Jeb Bush) remains on the sidelines. Latvala said there are several qualified Republicans but some are holding off "to give Rick a little priority on it."
Another well-known local Republican, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, said on Wednesday that numerous people have asked him to run and "I'm interested, but I'm not sure the timing is right." He said he wants to continue projects he has begun as sheriff and also is concerned about the impact on his family.
A slew of other Republicans are considering a run, including Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, former Pinellas Commissioner Neil Brickfield, former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, former state Rep. Larry Crow, Pinellas Commissioner Karen Seel, former Young aide David Jolly, former U.S. Senate candidate Sonya March, publisher Michael Pinson, Young's wife Beverly, Young's son, Bill Young II, and Young's brother, Tom.
Libertarian Lucas Overby is running as well.
On the Democratic side, it's not just Sink. St. Petersburg lawyer Jessica Ehrlich ran against Young last year and was campaigning against him even before his surprise retirement announcement and subsequent death.
Her campaign took a blow this week when Sink entered. Ehrlich's name was dropped off Emily's List as an endorsed candidate. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman issued a statement praising "Alex Sink's results-oriented approach," without mentioning Ehrlich.
But she did not respond. A spokeswoman said Ehrlich would not be available for an interview this week.
The governor's office Wednesday confirmed dates for the special election to fill out Young's term. The primary election will be Jan. 14 and the general election March 11. Another primary and general election will be held on Aug. 26 and Nov. 4 to elect someone to the full two-year term.
That's four elections in 11 months. And whoever runs in the special election will face an awkward challenge — campaigning during the holidays.
Adam Smith and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8232. Twitter: @ckruegertimes.