That Sinking Feeling

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Democrats have waited for 58 years to take over the U.S. Congressional district that encompasses most of Pinellas County. So with David Jolly’s semi-upset victory over Alex Sink on Tuesday night, perhaps having to wait another eight months to try to change that depressing statistic won’t be so hard to handle.

But there’s no doubt about it: The aftermath of this election is depressing for Florida and D.C.-based Democrats, because they went all in from the start last fall, confident that with the late C.W. Bill Young no longer on the ballot for the first time since the Watergate break-in, the odds were very good on picking up the swing district that is CD13, which includes most of Pinellas County save parts of downtown and South St. Petersburg. And by handpicking Alex Sink to be their candidate (though she had never lived in the district), they had a respected centrist Democrat whose name recognition and gravitas were far stronger than that of David Jolly or Kathleen Peters, the only two major Republicans who opted to run for the seat.

But it wasn’t to be. Sink lost another close but winnable race by 1.8 percent (she lost the governor’s race to Rick Scott in 2010 by 1.4 percent).
There was something about election night that didn’t seem right for Sink supporters from the start. Most local election parties begin after the polls close at 7 p.m., but Team Sink opted not to begin its party until 7:30 p.m. at the Hilton St. Petersburg Carillon Park.

The problem with that was that the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections was tabulating the votes at a furious rate, with nearly all the precincts in — and with Jolly increasing his small margin of victory — before any Democrats had entered the hall.

Heaven knows what will happen in November, but this particular special election race will always be remembered for the relentless and nonstop negative television ads that polluted the airwaves over the past two months. When it’s all said and done, total spending in the race will tabulate over $12 million. Though Sink out-fundraised Jolly, he had more than enough support from Super PACS like American Crossroads and the American Action Network to close that gap.

One disgusted Sink supporter, Barry Shalinsky, said the election was “calculated” to be a negative slugfest, “so people would get disgusted and not vote for anyone and suppress the turnout.” He said he was disappointed that the Democratic Congressional  Campaign Committee was as much at fault for that onslaught as the conservative groups.

Jolly himself acknowledged the barrage of ads in his campaign speech in Clearwater Beach, saying, “I’ve got very good news tonight. No more commercials.” That was after he was introduced via videotape by Beverly Young’s good friend, longtime game show host and animal rights activist Bob Barker.

In an interview with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly less than an hour after his victory speech, the former lobbyist and aide to Congressman Young said he was already prepared to start gearing up for re-election in the fall.

But whom will he be running against? As has been her custom during this campaign, Sink blew off the press after her concession statement Tuesday night. Most Democrats at the election party told CL that they would support Sink if she wanted to run again, though not every Democrat was following the party line.

“She was never a good candidate,” snarled Pinellas Democratic activist Jim Jackson. “It was hers to lose, and she did.” He wondered aloud if Jessica Ehrlich would be interested in running again. She’s the attorney who lost to Young in 2012 and was working hard to run again in 2014, before she was bigfooted by the D.C. establishment who chose Sink to run in the district.

Most other Democrats CL spoke with disagreed, though, saying they hoped Sink would run again — if she wanted to. Several others in the crowd begged off speaking, however, including Sink campaign manager Ashley Walker, who began to talk but stopped cold when she noticed the tape recorder in my hand.

Meanwhile, Jolly was keeping his head at his victory speech at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort in Clearwater Beach, acknowledging the narrow margin of his victory.

“I’m grateful for the tens of thousands that supported our campaign. But I also know that tens of thousands asked to be represented by a different person and embraced a different view of government. That’s okay, we are one community. I pledge to you this, while this campaign was at times partisan, your next congressman is not.”

Political columnists from around the country had been citing the race as a bellwether for the Affordable Care Act, and their verdict was that the ACA was a fatal burden for Sink, and thus probably will be for Democrats in the fall.

But while undoubtedly a factor, absent exit polling it remains only informed speculation. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released the day after Jolly’s victory showed the public at large pretty neutral on how much ACA would affect their decision regarding their own vote for Congress this fall. While the law is still very unpopular overall with the public, 48 percent say they would support a Democrat who wants to fix the law (as Sink said she did), compared with 47 percent who would vote for a Republican who favors repeal (as does David Jolly). 

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