It turns out that the only congressional district based entirely in Pinellas County really is split nearly down the middle. Republican David Jolly narrowly won Tuesday's special election to succeed the late U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young by wrapping himself in Young's legacy. Now it will be up to Jolly to demonstrate in Congress that he really is more like his former boss than the more conservative candidate he became on the campaign trail. He has less than eight months before the general election to build a record that reflects a mainstream Republican rather than a rigid ideological conservative.
Jolly's close election win against Democrat Alex Sink indicates that this Pinellas district really is one of the few competitive congressional districts left in the nation. District 13, which covers most of St. Petersburg and runs north through Largo and Clearwater to Dunedin, narrowly voted for President Barack Obama in 2012. Yet Jolly won as he consistently called for the repeal of Obama's signature health care reform law and as outside groups attacked Sink by linking her to the president. Sink was ahead when the absentee and early voting ballots were counted, but Jolly won more votes on Election Day to come from behind to win.
As a former aide to Young and a former lobbyist, Jolly is familiar with Washington and the mechanics of getting things done in the House. He demonstrated during the campaign that he can articulately make his case, and he is well-versed on federal issues. He should use that expertise to get things done for his district rather than pursue the ideological agenda he presented on the campaign trail, which included repealing the Affordable Care Act and pushing a constitutional amendment for a balanced budget. The Affordable Care Act is not going to be repealed while Obama is president, and a balanced budget amendment is just as unlikely.
No one expects Jolly to bring home as much federal money as Young did during his decades in Congress. The congressional rules now ban earmarks, and it takes time to build seniority to get much consideration for local projects. But Jolly can follow in Young's footsteps in other ways.
First, he can start to build a good office for constituent service for residents who need help navigating federal programs. Second, he can expand his horizon beyond the political boundaries of the Pinellas district to be helpful to the University of South Florida and MacDill Air Force Base. Third, he can continue Young's good work on behalf of military veterans, particularly those who suffered combat injuries and are being treated at area medical centers for veterans.
Give Jolly credit. He was not the first, second or third choice of many national and local Republicans to enter the race to succeed Young. But more prominent Republicans already holding public office declined to run, and Jolly ran a steady campaign even as he was outspent. Now he is headed to Washington to succeed his late boss, and he has an opportunity to build his own record before he appears on the ballot again in November.