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Democrats Eye Long-Time GOP Seat In Florida Special Election


This is a midterm election year, and the jockeying for position and the mud-slinging have already begun ahead of the November vote. The calendar is much shorter in one district in Florida. Voters there go to the polls next month in a special election that some pundits see as a good preview for the fall.

The election is to fill a seat held for more than 40 years by one congressman, Republican Bill Young. NPR's Greg Allen reports that Democrats have their best chance of winning this seat in decades.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: When Bill Young was elected to Congress, Richard Nixon was still in his first term as president. The Beatles were still together. Young died last year while serving his 22nd term. The Republican running for his seat is David Jolly, Young's former congressional aide.


ALLEN: It's a connection Jolly brings up at nearly every campaign appearance.

DAVID JOLLY: I'm proud to be a Bill Young Republican and let me tell you, I stand here every day defending his legacy, and I will honor that legacy.

ALLEN: In many ways, Florida's 13th Congressional District is a microcosm of the state. Pinellas County, which includes St. Petersburg, has become more Democratic in recent years and went to Obama in the last two elections. Democrats see a chance to pick up a longtime Republican seat here and have fielded a well-known candidate. Alex Sink is a former bank executive who served as Florida's elected chief financial officer and then ran unsuccessfully for governor.

With her high name recognition, she entered the race as the favorite, one with an ability to raise a lot of money. Sink has taken aim at Jolly for his career after leaving Young's office when he worked as a Washington lobbyist.


ALEX SINK: Mr. Jolly made the decision after he left the employment of Rep. Young, to go through the Washington revolving door and hire himself out to clients so that he could curry favor back, and take advantage of his relationships in Congress.

ALLEN: That's from a recent debate. Her ads hit Jolly even harder.


ALLEN: Jolly says although he worked as a lobbyist for the conservative Free Enterprise Nation, he's opposed to Medicare vouchers and would maintain current Social Security benefits for everyone who's contributed to the system for at least 10 years. But in retiree-rich Pinellas County, it's an attack that stings. Jolly appeared recently at a retirement community to rebut Sink's charges.

JOLLY: We are here to protect Social Security and Medicare. We will continue to do that. The noise from my opponent is simply that - it's noise. We are here today to offer that commitment to protect Social Security and Medicare.


JOLLY: Hey, sir, David Jolly.

ALLEN: Jolly, supported by Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, went from table to table in the retirement community's dining room, greeting voters. Eighty-three-year-old Grant Hoatson said he liked the late Congressman Young and what he stood for.

GRANT HOATSON: I think Mr. Jolly is fairly close to that, but I have seen what Alex Sink stands for. I said there's some things that I don't want to see in the office, and she would be one of them.

ALLEN: One of the things Hoatson says he doesn't like about Sink is her position on Obamacare. Encouraged by President Obama's low approval numbers and polls that show a majority of Americans dissatisfied with the Affordable Care Act, Jolly has made it a key part of his campaign. He says he would vote to repeal it. At the recent debate, Sink said she supported it, although there are things about the law she'd like to change.

SINK: This Affordable Care Act has not been perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but my position is it should not be repealed because we cannot go back to where we were before.

ALLEN: In attacking Sink, Jolly's getting lots of help from outside groups - like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has been running this ad.


ALLEN: Across the country with the midterm elections just nine months away, the national parties and outside groups are gearing up with fundraising and strategizing. But right now, they're focused on Florida's Tampa Bay area, spending millions on direct mail and TV ads. Political scientist Susan MacManus, of the University of South Florid, says as a competitive race in a swing state, the district serves as something of a petri dish for political researchers.

SUSAN MACMANUS: People who really want to test out things do focus groups or whatever. This is heaven right now for people looking ahead to the 2014 election cycle, not just in Florida but nationally.

ALLEN: Along with calling for the repeal of Obamacare, Jolly takes a conservative line on most other issues. He opposes immigration reform and gun control, and believes Roe vs. Wade should be overturned. It's a strategy that seems calculated in mobilizing Republicans and conservatives, getting them out to the polls. But it leaves a large group of voters cold.


JOLLY: At a dog park in Clearwater, Linda Hodges was walking her dog, Zoe. She's a former Republican, now registered as independent. She says she doesn't like that Jolly was a lobbyist, and she also doesn't like his political attacks against Sink.

LINDA HODGES: The criticism against Sink as far as labeling her with Obamacare, I just went, oh yeah - you know, give me something that makes more sense.

ALLEN: Absentee ballots are already being collected. Polls suggest it's a tight race that will likely turn on which candidate does a better job getting his or her supporters to come out and vote.

Greg Allen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.
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