Outside groups are pouring more than $4 million into Pinellas congressional race

Published Feb. 4, 2014

In an unprecedented financial war being waged on television screens throughout Pinellas County, outside groups are spending more than $4 million to support — and trash — Democratic congressional candidate Alex Sink and Republican David Jolly.

More than $2.6 million has been spent on television ads for Sink, including $1.9 million from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Jolly supporters have shelled out $1.6 million, including more than $700,000 from the National Republican Congressional Committee.

This outside spending far outstrips television buys by the candidates' own campaigns.

With so much national attention and so many millions invested, it will be difficult for Pinellas residents to miss the ubiquitous faces of Jolly and Sink during the five weeks remaining before the March 11 special election.

"They might think there's a presidential election going on by the end of it," said David Wasserman, a House elections expert for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Why the barrage? A mixture of numbers, timing and politics makes Pinellas County's 13th Congressional District a possible microcosm of national congressional elections this fall.

Both major parties have a solid chance at victory in the Pinellas district, where about 37.1 percent of registered voters are Republicans, 34.7 percent are registered Democrats, 24 percent have "no party affiliation," and the others are in smaller political parties.

The election comes as Democrats seek to make gains in the Republican-controlled U.S. House and Republicans hope displeasure over "Obamacare" will damage Democrats.

The special election, called after the death of longtime Republican U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, also is the only congressional election in March.

"This is the only game in town," Wasserman said. "And by town I mean not only St. Petersburg, but Washington."

The television spending "is unprecedented in the history of Pinellas County," said Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

He warned that viewers may start to ignore the ads if they start to feel unending.

"The vast majority just tune out unless there's an extremely memorable, different type of commercial and we certainly haven't had that yet," Paulson said.

It's not just the Democratic and Republican campaign committees who are filling Pinellas County televisions with ads that have been mostly negative.

The House Majority PAC, aimed at "holding Republicans accountable," plans to spend $650,000 on television ads to benefit Sink. Its executive director says "the choice for voters in Pinellas County couldn't be more clear: Alex Sink, a business leader and common sense problem solver, and David Jolly, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist who worked as a shill for the highest-bidding special interest."

The American Action Network, which aims "to put our center-right ideas into action," says it will spend $350,000 on commercials for Jolly. "With a mess of a record supporting Obamacare and tax hikes, and a past of gross financial mismanagement, Florida families simply can't trust Alex Sink in Washington," a spokeswoman said.

American Crossroads, affiliated with Republican political strategist Karl Rove, is buying $357,000 in broadcast and cable commercials. "The Democrats were hoping to get momentum here, they haven't, and it's important that we push back hard," CEO Steven Law has said.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which announced Monday its endorsement of Jolly, plans to spend more than $200,000 to influence voters.

The financial and television war is mostly between the Democratic and Republican nominees for the seat, although Libertarian Lucas Overby is running as well. The 13th Congressional District stretches from south Pinellas to Dunedin, with portions of southern and downtown St. Petersburg cut out.

Times staff writers Alex Leary and Adam C. Smith contributed to this report. Curtis Krueger can be reached at or (727) 893-8232.