Alex Sink’s announcement Wednesday that she’s stepping into the race for the late U.S. Rep. C. W. “Bill” Young’s seat didn’t come as a surprise, as her candidacy has been telegraphed for weeks; but it did remove one less variable in a race that, despite many unknowns, has already grown heated.
Young died this month, leaving vacant the seat he held for nearly 43 years. Sink, 65, the former Democratic gubernatorial candidate and state chief financial officer, doesn’t even have campaign staff or headquarters set up in Pinellas County’s District 13 yet.
That didn’t stop GOP leaders, still looking for candidates to campaign for the remainder of Young’s term, from going into attack mode.
Within hours of Sink’s announcement, Republicans at the state and national levels sent out a video and several press releases criticizing Sink’s record, attempting to tie her to state budget problems in recent years.
For political observers, the reaction to Sink’s announcement underscores how critical both major parties deem this seat — and signals the fierce battle that’s to come.
“I think we’ll be measuring the spending in this race in the millions of dollars,” said Nathan Gonzales, who writes about congressional politics for the Rothenberg Report, a nonpartisan online political magazine. “I think we’re likely to see television airwaves packed with political ads.”
Democrats see the race for the District 13 seat, which represents a swing district with an abnormally high number of independent voters, as crucial in their effort to win back a majority in the House of Representatives. Republicans, determined to keep that majority, don’t want to lose a seat they have held since the 1950s, the oldest Republican seat in Florida’s congressional delegation and the first one the party won since Reconstruction. The Rothenberg Report currently rates the District 13 race as a “pure toss-up.”
Sink was the biggest name on the list of possible Democratic contenders. At the party’s state convention in Orlando last weekend, she was all but nominated in a speech by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. By early this week, most other potential Democrats had cleared the deck for Sink, except for Jessica Ehrlich, the St. Petersburg lawyer who challenged Young in 2012 and was a candidate for the 2014 race well before Young announced his retirement.
Ehrlich has not said whether she plans on dropping out now that Sink is in. Shortly after Sink’s announcement, Ehrlich’s campaign issued a statement announcing an endorsement from the American Postal Workers Union — the seventh union to do so, according to her campaign; but the statement did not mention Sink. Later in the day, Emily’s List, a high-profile funding source for female Democratic candidates, dropped Ehrlich from its list of recommended candidates.
Sink didn’t have anything to say about Ehrlich, either. She appears to be targeting Washington, at least for the moment, and said she wants to tackle issues such as dealing with the dramatic hikes in the federal flood insurance program and fraud protection for seniors. In a statement released Wednesday, Sink decried the bitter division and political gridlock in Congress as key reasons she is running.
“Everywhere I go in Pinellas County, there’s a deep frustration with the dysfunctional and reckless politics of Washington that was responsible for the painful, irresponsible shutdown of our nation’s government,” Sink said in the statement.
While Sink lives in Thonotosassa in rural eastern Hillsborough County — far from the Pinellas residents she hopes to represent — she is well-known throughout the state.
Formerly the Florida president of Bank of America, Sink was elected CFO in 2006. She was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2010, losing by a narrow margin to Gov. Rick Scott. It appeared as though Sink was gearing up for a rematch in 2014 but announced in September she would not run for governor, instead opting to focus on her work with the Florida Next Foundation, a nonprofit that helps small businesses. Weeks later, when Young announced he was retiring, Sink hinted that she was interested in his seat. Wednesday, she pointed to her showing in Pinellas County in her gubernatorial and CFO races as evidence District 13 voters will get behind her.
“It’s a pretty evenly split district, but the people in this district supported me,” Sink said in an interview. “I know that I can be an effective advocate for them.”
Sink said she’s shopping for a home in Pinellas County and that her personal cell phone number has a 727 area code. Although it’s not against the rules for members of Congress to live outside their districts, doing so is usually politically risky.
“Quite honestly, she has chosen not live in Pinellas County for her entire life,” said Michael Guju, the chairman of the Republican Party of Pinellas County. “I think people will see through this Johnny-come-lately attitude and try to choose someone who’s local.”
The little polling that’s been done in the race so far suggests otherwise. In October, before Young’s death, polling by StPete Polls suggested Sink was more favorable to district voters than any Republican, including former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, whom some believe would be her strongest challenger.
Other possible challengers include Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, a longtime aide to Young; former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard and former Pinellas County Commissioner Neil Brickfield. Young’s widow, Beverly, son, Billy, and brother, Tom, along with his personal attorney, David Jolly, have also been mentioned as potential candidates.
Most are longtime Pinellas residents, making them stark contrasts with Sink; but how much where she lives is likely to resonate with voters remains a question.
“In [Sink’s] case, the carpetbag label might not stick as easily because people know her,” said University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett. “The average voter would be hard pressed to say ‘OK, where are the district lines?’ ”
District 13 includes most of Pinellas County from Dunedin south, excluding downtown and South St. Petersburg.
GOP candidates should start announcing shortly, but it’s still a little too early after Young’s death for them to jump in, Guju said.
“I think we have to wait a little bit longer for things to settle,” he said.
Time is drawing short, though. On Wednesday, Scott set Jan. 14 as the primary and March 11 for the special election to fill the remainder of Young’s term. The regular election would take place in November, with a primary in August.
If Republicans don’t want to give Sink much more of a head start, they need to have a candidate lined up within the next few days.
“They can’t afford to wait any longer,” said Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of political science at University of South Florida St. Petersburg. “You can’t let her have a two- or three-week head start.”