CLEARWATER — Behind a sign reading "Unfinished Business," Rep. David Jolly made official Friday what had long been expected: He is dropping out of the U.S. Senate race to run for re-election to the U.S. House.
"Today I'm asking my community simply for the opportunity to keep doing my job," the Indian Shores Republican said from an airport hangar at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. "Today I'm announcing that I am seeking re-election to the U.S. House of Representatives for Pinellas County."
The move sets up what could be an epic contest between Republican-turned-Democrat and former Gov. Charlie Crist, who is seeking the seat. After court-ordered redistricting, Jolly's seat now technically leans further toward the Democrats, though Jolly said Friday that a focus on local issues and solutions instead of partisan posturing would help him win over skeptics.
The switch also gets Jolly out of the way of incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio, who is poised to run for re-election after long saying he would not. Jolly had declared weeks ago that he expected Rubio to reverse course and run for the Senate, and he made clear he would not run against Rubio under any circumstance.
Four other Republicans are also running in the race to replace Rubio, but none has surged to the forefront, causing national Republicans to become increasingly worried that none can win in November. That has prompted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others to publicly call on Rubio to run again for the Senate.
This week, Rubio told reporters he was reconsidering the Senate race after telling a national radio talk show host that the tragedy in Orlando had given him pause to think about how he could serve the nation. Rubio has to decide by June 24, the deadline to qualify to get on the ballot.
Crist, meanwhile, said he's still confident he can win the 13th Congressional District, even with Jolly as his opponent.
"We have better turnouts typically," he said of Democrats during presidential election years. "Things went well for us in the district even in the gubernatorial election with a lot of money spent against us. I feel good about things."
The district also got slightly more Democratic because of redistricting. Parts of St. Petersburg that used to be in a different congressional district are in the newly reconfigured 13th District. The district covers most of Pinellas County south of Safety Harbor.
"I think generally speaking Congress has been pretty dysfunctional. We need leaders that can get things done and can work with others," Crist said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. "Congress while he's been there has not been that place, and that's unfortunate."
Crist initially declined to offer specific criticisms of Jolly.
"Listen, I'm not here to name call, certainly not on someone's announcement day. He did that to us, but that's not my style. … It's just day one and we'll take it from here."
But two hours after Jolly got in the race, Crist sent out a fundraising email blasting Jolly as a "Washington lobbyist."
Jolly on Friday said he had regretted voting for Crist in the past, and noted that he had actually asked Crist to return a campaign donation after the former governor switched parties. But Jolly shied away from criticizing Crist further, saying he wants to focus on his own record.
"I have expressed my opinions about his candidacy, and I don't intend to reference it anymore between now and November," he said. "Part of my promise to change the tone is hopefully you all won't hear me utter another candidate's name between now and November."
Jolly likely won't have the same help from national Republicans in trying to defeat Crist as he did in 2014 when he beat Democrat Alex Sink in a special election to win the seat. The National Republican Congressional Committee made clear on Friday that it played no role in getting Jolly to run for re-election.
"The NRCC was not included in his 'deliberations' and has not had any discussions with David about him running for re-election. We do not — and will not — comment about commitments for financial support or anything else," said Katie Martin, a spokeswoman for the NRCC.
Jolly has irritated the NRCC by touting his Stop Act, which would bar candidates from personally seeking campaign donations. He was featured in an April story on 60 Minutes on CBS, which used footage from hidden cameras to show the tiny call offices congressmen use to solicit donations in between meetings.
Asked how close he anticipated working with the group that he called out on national TV, Jolly said the ball was in the NRCC's court.
"I will let the NRCC make a decision as it chooses to," Jolly said. "My mission with the Stop Act … was never intended to take on the party. I intended to take on the amount of time it takes members of Congress to raise money for their own election."
Pinellas County Republicans have been pushing Jolly for months to run for re-election in the 13th Congressional District, seeing him as their best shot to beat Crist in November.
But that could be a tall order, according to the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, a Washington, D.C.-based newsletter that analyzes congressional races. Nathan Gonzales said even with Jolly in the race, he still has the 13th District as a "safe Democratic" district. Gonzales said Jolly will be challenged running without NRCC support in a district that under its new configuration President Barack Obama carried by 10 percentage points in 2012.
Though Jolly is out of the Senate race, it doesn't mean Rubio has a clear path yet, should he re-enter the contest.
Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis have said they do not intend to run against Rubio. But real estate developer Carlos Beruff and Orlando businessman Todd Wilcox have already filed papers to run and have said they are prepared to take on Rubio.
The winner of the Republican primary will likely face either U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, or U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, who are battling in the Aug. 30 Democratic primary.
Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.