1. Florida Politics

In Pinellas congressional race, could a Libertarian decide the outcome?

Lucas Overby, a Libertarian, is a commercial diver.
Lucas Overby, a Libertarian, is a commercial diver.
Published Mar. 7, 2014

All the pundits are calling Pinellas County's big-money, nationally watched congressional election a razor-thin contest that could go to the Democrats or Republicans.

But this analysis leaves out a key factor named Lucas Overby.

He's a Libertarian who has been in the race longer than either Democrat Alex Sink or Republican David Jolly, and who participated in all three candidate debates alongside the other two.

Most polls give Overby 4 to 7 percent of the vote, with one setting his support at 12 percent. With a neck-and-neck race between Jolly and Sink, could Overby's campaign impact Tuesday's results?

"Absolutely," said Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "The big question is what kind of impact?"

Paulson said he's not sure he buys conventional wisdom, which suggests Overby would draw supporters more heavily from Jolly than Sink. The reasoning behind that is the Libertarian Party's stance against over-regulation and big government bureaucracy appeals to people who would otherwise vote Republican.

Libertarian candidates can also attract younger and more Democratic voters, Paulson said, because of the party's support of decriminalizing marijuana, same sex marriage and more.

"Overby could really have some negative impact on the Sink campaign," he said, "but nobody knows."

Overby has a different view.

"Victory is very possible," he said this week. "It is very realistic for us to win."

Overby said the conventional way to view third-party candidates is how much they take away from the Republican or Democratic voting bases, but his campaign — which began before longtime Republican U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young died in October — has always had a different strategy.

Instead of targeting "super voters" who go to the polls every time, his campaign has been seeking those who stopped voting, either because they never got interested or because they became disenfranchised.

Overby, a 27-year-old commercial diver, says he offers an alternative, someone who's not part of the big-party machinery, who doesn't owe anything to corporate interests or lobbyists.

He believes the large number of people who already have voted in this race is partly because people who normally stay out of elections have heard his campaign, and decided to vote.

"The majority of the people that we've spoken to directly were happy to be voting, they were not planning on doing so," he said. "I honestly believe if we were not in this race, the voting returns would not be nearly as high as they are."

According to the Pinellas Supervisor of Elections, more than 109,000 have voted as of Wednesday. Of those, 19 percent were people in smaller political parties or independents. About 42 percent were Republicans and 39 percent were Democrats.

Less than 1 percent of voters in Pinellas' Congressional District 13 are registered as Libertarian.

In Treasure Island, Roger Rainwater, a 68-year-old insurance salesman and registered Republican, said he voted for Overby because he wanted someone who wasn't "part of the establishment."

"Sink didn't impress me and Jolly's too slick," he said recently. "I'm a Republican, but he's (Jolly) been part of the establishment for way too long and I can't put a guy in that's been a lobbyist."

In Overby, Rainwater said he had found a candidate who reminded him a bit of himself. "He's a working Joe, and so am I, and I feel like give the guy a chance. He's articulate, he doesn't run the other people down, and that's important."

Christopher Gleason, 42, a Republican from Clearwater, said "everyone's pretty much fed up with both parties."

He has an interest in Libertarian candidates, but he's not sure they can be successful at present. So he's leaning toward Jolly.

"I don't think Libertarians are going to be viable," he said. "The system's set up for them not to be."

Staff writer Anna M. Phillips contributed to this report.