Smith: Here's why David Jolly may be poised to drop from the U.S. Senate race

U.S. Rep. David Jolly, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate is expected to run for re-election instead. [Miami Herald]
U.S. Rep. David Jolly, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate is expected to run for re-election instead. [Miami Herald]
Published Jun. 19, 2016

U.S. Rep. David Jolly is a leading candidate in Florida's crowded Republican Senate primary. So what has he been up to lately?

• Refusing to follow the lead of most Republicans and endorse presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump.

• Denouncing the fundraising culture among the kind of party elites whose financial support he needs.

• Scolding fellow Republicans for ignoring scientists on global warming: "I'm sick and tired of going nowhere in addressing large problems, and I'd like to see our party accept the science and say we believe in conservative solutions."

• Demanding the other leading Republican candidate, Carlos Beruff, apologize for calling Barack Obama an "animal."

• Announcing that he expects Marco Rubio to run for a second term and that he will drop out to clear the path for Rubio.

Does this look like a man consumed with winning a statewide Republican primary? No. What it looks like is a candidate hugging the center and consciously reaching out to Democrats, independents, and moderates alike. It looks more as if David Jolly is preparing to run for another term in his Democratic-leaning congressional district in Pinellas County than stick with his U.S. Senate campaign.

"I'm absolutely encouraging him to run for another term," said Mel Sembler, the St. Petersburg developer and one of the nation's top Republican fundraisers, noting that Jolly has a plum assignment on the House Appropriations Committee that would be a shame for Pinellas to lose.

Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, who seriously considered running for the House seat himself, said he is convinced Jolly can beat Charlie Crist. Even though the South Pinellas district was redrawn to heavily favor Democrats, Jolly can win because he has already shown voters he is a congressman who puts his district ahead of party labels, Baker said.

"And I believe that's where his heart is, in the House," Baker said. "He worked with Congressman (C.W. Bill) Young all those years and even while he has been running for the Senate he has been doing the job he was elected to do."

Nobody worked harder to keep Jolly from winning the Republican nomination for that seat after Young's sudden death in 2013 than state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who backed state Rep. Kathleen Peters and cast Jolly as an outsider from K Street in Washington.

But Latvala has become a big fan and is adding his voice to those urging Jolly to run for reelection. The main criteria, Latvala said, is who will do the most good for Pinellas County.

"As he moved up the ladder, what has Charlie Crist ever really done for Pinellas County?" Latvala said.

Jolly could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but when I wrote a column in April suggesting that he could run for reelection, his Senate campaign eventually released a statement downplaying that possibility: "Jolly is focused on passing the Stop Act, doing his day job, and winning the U.S. Senate race."

Politically, Jolly, 43, has no great option here.

Even with other Senate candidates likely to have considerably more financial support, the crowded field could enable him to win the nomination with just 25 percent of the vote. But that's not necessarily likely. Then if he does win the nomination, having Donald Trump at the top of the ticket likely makes winning the general election harder. If, instead, he runs for reelection, he would be a big underdog against former Gov. Crist.

Latvala, a veteran political consultant, said he has paid for the polling that shows Jolly beating Crist in that district. "Multiple polls, actually, because we didn't believe it the first time."

Trump actually narrowly leads in some Pinellas polling, Latvala said, and could be a big help to Jolly: "There are people that don't normally vote — people in places like Lealman, places like Pinellas Park, that are whipped up by Donald Trump, and those are people who will vote for David Jolly over Charlie Crist."

The deadline for candidates to qualify for federal office is noon on June 24. My hunch is Jolly takes on Crist.

Contact Adam C. Smith at Follow @AdamSmithTimes