David Jolly won Pinellas County's nationally watched Republican congressional primary by a wide margin on Tuesday, setting the stage for a costly and intense general election battle with Democrat Alex Sink.
Jolly, 41, a former congressional aide and Washington lobbyist, won 45 percent of the vote, followed by state Rep. Kathleen Peters with 31 percent and Mark Bircher with 24 percent, according to unofficial results.
Now Jolly charges into the March 11 general election so Pinellas voters can select a replacement for the late Republican U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, who spent 43 years in Congress.
At a Marriott room filled with supporters waving "Jolly for Congress" placards, Jolly quickly turned the focus to Sink, claiming "my opponent wants to win this race for Washington, D.C. I want to win it for Pinellas County."
He also immediately worked to shore up support from his Republican rivals, praising both for admirable campaigns, and saying Bircher had become a friend.
Bircher, 60, a political newcomer with an impressive resume that includes flying with the Navy's Blue Angels and becoming a Marine Corps reserve brigadier general, pledged to support Jolly.
"I know he's got a lot of experience," Bircher said. "I think we can prevail on March 11."
Peters, 52, did not rush to support Jolly, saying she wanted to meet with him and make sure he is devoted to Pinellas residents, "not special interests and not party interests."
She attributed her loss largely to Jolly's campaign money, and all the television ads it bought. As of late last month, he had raised more than twice as much as she had. Peters believes she would have won in a longer campaign.
For Jolly and Sink, a new campaign has begun, and the evidence will soon show up in the form of television commercials.
Sink, who had $1 million in cash on hand last month and not much need to spend it until now, is likely to unleash a barrage of commercials soon. Now that Republicans have a nominee, more cash is expected to flow into Jolly's accounts, putting him on the airwaves, too.
Libertarian Lucas Overby also will be on the ballot in March.
As Jolly thanked his supporters, he repeatedly called himself a "Bill Young Republican" as the outlines of the new campaign came into focus.
Jolly repeatedly said the race was "about making sure somebody from Pinellas County is elected to represent Pinellas County in Washington, D.C."
Jolly was born in Pinellas County and has lived in Indian Shores since 2006, while Sink is a longtime Hillsborough County resident who recently moved into a rented condo in Pinellas.
He skewered Obamacare, saying he would vote to repeal it as soon as possible.
"I will work to replace it with a private sector solution that actually does fulfill that now famous promise . . . 'If you like your insurance, you can keep it,' " he said.
He also pledged to rein in federal spending and fight controversial flood insurance changes.
Jolly also said Sink, a former state chief financial officer and candidate for governor, was the choice of the "Washington establishment," and said to cheering supporters: "Washington, D.C., I am telling you, do not count out this campaign, do not count out this candidate."
But the anti-Washington message is a two-way street because of Jolly's own history as a longtime aide to Young, and his later work as a Washington lobbyist, lawyer and consultant.
In a Tuesday night news release, the Florida Democratic Party wasted no time in saying: "Jolly went through the classic 'Washington Revolving Door,' selling his influence to special interest groups all over the country."
Sink said in an interview just before the vote totals came in, "I'm going to show the people of my district what a hard worker I am and how interested I am in hearing from them."
She added that, "I want to put the interests of Pinellas County over politics."
More than 200 supporters came to Jolly's event, including former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and state Sen. Jeff Brandes. Rep. Young's widow, Beverly attended, as did her sons, Patrick and Bill Young II. The latter Young had endorsed Peters, and stopped by her event before going to Jolly's to show Republican unity.
Jolly, Bircher and Peters were running in a special election called because of Young's death, and the short time frame left them with challenges. Voters had to study up on unfamiliar candidates as they scrambled to get their names out quickly.
Jolly stepped up early and lined up support, but then Peters joined the race with the backing of her own local luminaries, including Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, who like Jolly is a former longtime aide to Young. Peters also was assisted by Republican state Sen. Jack Latvala, who made no secret of his intention to find a Jolly alternative. Jolly seemed to pay him back in his final mailing of the primary, which said Peters had gotten two "liberal endorsements" — one from Latvala.
If the next two months sounds like a brutal campaign, it won't be the last. Once the special election is over March 11, candidates will likely turn to the next regular election, which is later this year with an August primary and November general election.