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Scramble begins for Rep. C.W. Bill Young's congressional seat

In Pinellas County, too many people to count have grown old, gray and forgotten while waiting to run for Congress upon the retirement of the all-but-invincible U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young.

The retirement announcement finally hit Tampa Bay on Wednesday, and it came like a political earthquake.

"I knew something big had happened when my phone kept buzzing during a (transportation committee) meeting," quipped County Commissioner Ken Welch, recounting how his devotedly Democratic father, David Welch, once instructed his son to vote for the Republican Young.

The political significance of Young's decision not to run again in 2014 cannot be overstated.

Simply put, this is the most competitive seat — and best opportunity for the Democrats to pick up a Republican-held congressional seat — anywhere in Florida, if not the Southeast. In 2014 it will be the rarest of prizes in American politics: a truly toss-up U.S. House district without an incumbent.

In 2012, Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in the district 50 percent to 49 percent, while Young had his weakest showing in decades (he blew out Democratic newcomer Jessica Ehrlich by 16 percentage points, 58 percent to 42 percent). In 2010, Democrat Alex Sink edged Rick Scott in the district with 51 percent of the vote, while Obama won with nearly 52 percent in 2008 and George W. Bush won it in 2004 with 51 percent.

Potential Democratic contenders include Ehrlich, who already is running; Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice, who ran for the seat before; Welch, who doesn't live in the district but has previously been courted to run by national party leaders; County Commissioner Janet Long; St. Petersburg City Council candidate Darden Rice, who would be insane to acknowledge any interest before the votes are in for her current race; and St. Petersburg mayoral candidate Rick Kriseman, who insisted that, one, he will win next month's city election, and, two, that he won't run for Congress even if he loses.

This may prove to be another reminder of how weak the Democratic bench is in Florida, even in an increasingly Democratic county like Pinellas. Ehrlich surely assumes she's well positioned, having been running for the seat pretty much steadily since 2011, but nobody is going to step aside for her.

Republicans have more potentially strong contenders, including state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg; former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker; state Sen. Jack Latvala; County Commissioner Karen Seel; County Commissioner John Morroni; Clearwater mayor and longtime former Young aide George Cretekos; former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard; former Young aide David Jolly; and state House candidate Billy Young, Young's son.

Republican consultant Nick Zoller is already letting people know of his interest, and we can expect plenty more names to start surfacing.

Keep in mind, at this early stage of a campaign two things are almost certain: Most every elected official will want their name in the mix as contenders and decline to rule it out; and most seriously interested candidates won't admit it for a while. Protocol calls for a period of lavishing praise on Young before overtly campaigning to succeed him.

Said Charlie Justice: "There is plenty of time to speculate about who will succeed him. Today is simply about thanking Bill Young for his service."

And Rick Baker, when asked about running: "I'm not going to talk about that now."

Baker, 57, would be a formidable candidate, though his strongholds in southern St. Petersburg are not part of Young's current congressional district 13, which stretches from Fort De Soto Park to Dunedin.

"Right now I'm laser-focused on serving the constituents of Senate District 22 and Tampa Bay and the state of Florida," said Jeff Brandes, 37, who immediately emerges as a top contender because family money enables him to spend millions on a campaign.

One question surfaced Wednesday: Would Charlie Crist consider running for Congress rather than for governor?

Absurd as it sounds — who would opt to be one of 435 House members rather than governor? — Crist, 57, was willing to give up the governorship to run for U.S. Senate in order to gain long-term political job security. And winning a House seat would be a lot less risky than taking on Scott, who expects to spend as much as $100 million to win a second term.

"Crist for Congress" seems unlikely, though, as the Republican-turned-Democratic former governor has been meeting with top Democratic fundraisers across the country in preparation for a gubernatorial run.

In a text message sent Wednesday evening, Crist brushed off talk of him aiming again for Washington: "Love being in Florida!" he wrote.

The modern Florida Republican Party has its deepest roots in Pinellas County, where the "Pinellas congressional seat," with assorted boundary shifts, has been represented by giants of the GOP — William Cramer and Young — since 1955.

The race to succeed them in 2014 should be another one for the history books.

Scramble begins for Rep. C.W. Bill Young's congressional seat 10/09/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 9, 2013 11:31pm]

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