ST. PETERSBURG — In three days, the flurry of attack ads streaming on the Web and on television will fade away, heralding the end of a special election cycle that was in many ways unprecedented for Florida’s 13th Congressional District, one with national implications.
The race between Republican David Jolly, Democrat Alex Sink and Libertarian newcomer Lucas Overby will be over for now, unless the losing candidates opt for a rematch in the fall, when there will be scores of elections across the country and the District 13 chatter will be only a small part of the noise.
The national emphasis on the race was predictable, as was the flock of reporters, consultants and political party operatives lucky enough to ditch Washington’s weather for Pinellas County as the game unfolded.
“This is the only game in town right now, and by town I mean the country,” said Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report, Washington, D.C., political analysis Web site.
Much of Pinellas is unaccustomed to such intensity, at least when it comes to a Congressional election. Republican C.W. Bill Young comfortably held this seat for 43 years until his death in October, and all the facilities bearing his name may have done more campaigning for Young than Young himself. Democrats saw this seat as a prospective foothold, given voters went for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and for Sink in 2010.
“It seemed to me that probably the most obvious thing going into the race was that Sink was the clear front-runner, so it was her race to lose,” said Darryl Paulson, a University of South Florida political science professor emeritus. “We are still pretty much in that position.”
Republicans, though, aren’t handing it over, and the race is by all accounts neck-and-neck.
It has been treated as something of a microcosm of the national political picture, given the district’s near-even division among Republicans and Democrats, with a slight lead for the former. The prevailing candidate’s party likely will treat the outcome as a bellwether for the November midterms and a gauge on the public’s feelings on issues such as the Affordable Care Act — whether or not it really is either of those.
Hence, the tons of money being raised by the campaigns, as well as outside PACs and super PACS, and those ads, which recently were estimated to run about 200 times a day in the Tampa market, not counting digital campaigns that stream ads ahead of YouTube content and between Pandora songs.
Politicos knew this would be an expensive race. Last fall, some experts speculated it could be a $5 million race. As of last count, that number had more than doubled.
“To the degree that any of us have the capacity has to be shocked, it is shocking,” said Viveca Novak, a spokeswoman for the Center for Responsive Politics. “It’s a lot of money. It’s really a lot of money.”
Much of that went toward attack ads that filled the airwaves, largely paid for by outside groups. Such groups walk a thin line in terms of how they can coordinate with candidates, but they take as much liberty as they want when it comes to the truth of ad content, as extensive analyses by several organizations, including The Tampa Tribune, revealed.
The influence of these groups, which can raise unlimited amounts of money without disclosing the donors, will be a defining factor in the midterms if the District 13 special election is any indication.
“It is the year of outside spending,” Novak said.
A proliferation of negative, dishonest political ads may have some unintended consequences, University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus said, if the number of voters turned off by nasty ads in 2012 is any indication.
“The first couple ads out of the box were very positive,” she said. “Initially, from a political science perspective, there was the thought that the tone of the race would be different this time.”
That quickly eroded, which MacManus said is increasingly impacting how voters see the two-party system.
That means Libertarian Lucas Overby might be in the right place at the right time. While most political observers don’t expect a win for Overby or any third party candidate, if he were to break double digits it would send a message about what the voters want.
“Fewer and fewer people are identifying with either party,” McManus said. “I think what we’re seeing in him is what we’re going to see in the future.”
If nothing else, she said, major parties will probably take a cue from the likes of Overby, whose party espouses individual autonomy on issues like gay marriage, medical marijuana, abortion rights and gun control and wants less government interference.
“I think that what you’re going to see is both major parties are going to have to adjust to the Millenial generation, which is far less dogmatic and a mix between the two parties,” MacManus said.
The election is Tuesday, and polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. throughout the district, which runs from Dunedin south to Tierra Verde, with parts of downtown and southern St. Petersburg cut out.