Charlie Crist wrests longtime GOP Pinellas seat from incumbent David Jolly

Published November 9 2016
Updated November 9 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — Charlie Crist revived his political career Tuesday by winning a Pinellas County congressional seat that was held by Republicans for more than 60 years.

Crist, a former Republican governor running as a Democrat, beat incumbent Republican David Jolly by a relatively slim 52 percent to 48 percent margin in the 13th Congressional District, according to preliminary returns.

St. Petersburg's Crist won the new parts of the district, added in a court-ordered redraw last year, and also managed to cut enough into Jolly's Clearwater base to prevail in one of the most closely watched congressional races in the nation.

Crist said his victory is an opportunity to bring stability to Congress. The race was contentious, but Crist said it was never personal.

"Jolly was my opponent," he said, "but he was never my enemy."

Jolly ended the race on an upbeat note.

"Tonight is a turn in politics," he said. "We may not have won the campaign ... but I'll look at the camera like we did and say, 'Washington look out.'"

The close finish ended an ugly campaign. Not surprisingly, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump loomed large over the race — but with a twist.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee tried to tie Jolly to Trump by running a TV ad that used faked images to place the two together — except Jolly said he has never met Trump and has disavowed him. Jolly fought back by also linking Crist to the New York businessman, because Crist has actually met Trump in the past.

Since the end of August, Crist and Jolly have rumbled over the GOP presidential nominee. Each has tried to sink the other with Trump's baggage in a moderate swing district.

Jolly, 44, told the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday that he did not vote for Trump or Clinton, but would not say who he voted for.

Jolly and Crist also tried to furiously undercut each other's partisan strongholds. Jolly practically camped out in the Midtown and Childs Park neighborhoods of St. Petersburg in the second half of October while Crist made frequent trips, especially over the summer, to Clearwater, the GOP rump and northern terminus of a newly-drawn district that now stretches south to the Sunshine Skyway bridge.

Crist, 60, had the advantage of a long career in Florida politics and sky-high name recognition. He had the active help of big-name Democrats like presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton and Joe Biden who made sure to remind voters at rallies to cast their ballots for the former Republican. President Barack Obama endorsed Crist and cut ads for him.

National Democrats gave the race more than lip service. The party and affiliated groups poured millions into television ads attacking Jolly, painting the moderate Republican as dangerous for women and buddies with Trump.

The negative flood from the DCCC and others allowed Crist to spend his own money on a series of positive ads, reminding voters of his long standing ties to the county and even poked fun at the famously smooth politician's fondness for air-circulating fans.

Meanwhile, Jolly enraged national Republicans when he filed legislation seeking to ban members of Congress from personally soliciting donations. He also voiced moderate views on gun rights.

In the end, Jolly raised $1.8 million to Crist's $1.6 million, but much of Jolly's cash was raised in his bid to replace Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate. When Rubio decided to run for reelection, Jolly opted to defend a seat that he had abandoned shortly after the redraw, calling it unwinnable for a Republican.

Crist, who lives in St. Petersburg, entered the race last October after the redraw, ousting a well-funded political novice, Eric Lynn, who dropped out before the Aug. 30 primary.

Jolly, who lives in Belleair Bluffs, easily bested retired Marine general and airline pilot Mark Bircher in the Republican primary.

Times staff writer Kathryn Varn and correspondents Kristy Andersen and Molly Curls contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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