The special election to fill the late C.W. “Bill” Young’s seat in Congress is riddled with numerous challenges for the candidates, not the least of which is having to campaign during the holidays.
The time frame for the election is likely to prove a strong dynamic in the race. Three Republicans — lobbyist and former Young aide David Jolly, state representative and former South Pasadena Mayor Kathleen Peters, and retired Marine Gen. Mark Bircher, a political newcomer — will square off in the Jan. 14 primary for the District 13 seat. The winner will face former state chief financial officer and gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink in the March 11 special election.
Not that holiday campaigning is unprecedented. Scott Brown, the former Republican senator from Massachusetts, prevailed in a January special election in 2010 to fill Ted Kennedy’s seat after his death. And presidential hopefuls trudge out to Iowa in January for the early caucuses there.
Nevertheless, campaigning during the holidays is unusual and presents candidates with distinct challenges.
It’s a time when money is scarce, schedules are tight and negative campaigning doesn’t fly. People are supposed to set their grudges aside and find common ground this time of year — even in Washington.
“Everybody’s just cordial. It’s different,” said Steve Parkhurst, a consultant with GPH Consulting, a national political consulting form that works with Republican candidates. “You’ve got good tidings and joy and all of that going on.”
Commercials smearing another candidate could come across as tacky when sandwiched between ads thick with messages of joy and peace.
“Everybody can find something nice to say to everyone else that time of year,” Parkhurst said. “You have to have a level of sensitivity.”
That’s why candidates might be better off highlighting their own strengths rather than tearing down opponents in December.
“People aren’t paying that much attention and, I think, people find it tacky,” Chris Akins, of Akins Campaign Strategy in Tallahassee, said in an email.
“It simply isn’t the time to campaign, outside [of] heartfelt and genuine wishes for happy holidays. ... For the campaigning that does occur, I generally advise to dial back the rhetoric and focus on what’s been accomplished and how it helps the community at large — policies that benefit everyone.”
Come Jan. 2, the barbs can come out, said Abby Livingston, a writer for Washington political blog Roll Call, who is covering the District 13 race. By then, though, it may be too late for candidates in the primary.
“It would be a sprint to the finish,” she said.
Especially considering that early voting in the District 13 race starts on Jan. 4.
By then, mail ballots for the primary will also be trickling in. Pinellas County Elections Supervisor Deborah Clark has been encouraging absentee voting in recent years. Absentee ballots went out to overseas and military voters Wednesday, and they go out to local absentee voters on Dec. 10.
Candidates need to have their message out to voters by the start of the year, though, Parkhurst said.
“You have to have your radio ads done, your TV ads done, and your direct mail has to be pretty much out the door by that time,” he said.
Getting the message out could also prove more difficult in the District 13 special election than it would in a normal election cycle.
For one, advertising rates during the holidays can be exorbitant, given that campaigns are often competing with major retailers for pricey commercial slots over the holidays.
Raising money for those ads can also be tough.
“It’s notoriously difficult ... to raise money during this time,” Livingston said. “That’s a time when people are tight with their budgets. They’d probably prefer to give their kids something nice for Christmas rather than give a candidate money for an ad for TV. It’s a harder sell.”
Organizing fundraisers to pay for that advertising can be tough as well, but not impossible, Akins said.
“An organized fundraiser might be hard to pull off, but calling your reliable donors and meeting with small groups is certainly doable,” he said. “Essentially, I might not organize a large public fundraiser, but I’d certainly consider using a week or two right after Thanksgiving and early December to get my regulars on board and meet with prospects and keep it low-key.”
As would be true of any truncated election cycle, top contenders in the District 13 race will have strong name recognition and fundraising ability. In the cases of Jolly and Peters — with Peters having the name recognition and Jolly having the financial resources — campaigning around the holidays means reaching out directly to the right voters — except on the major holidays, when most people don’t want to hear about politics.
“Special elections are always especially impacted by turnout, or sometimes lack thereof,” said Tallahassee GOP political consultant Sarah Bascom, who is serving as the Jolly campaign’s communications director. “With this race being around the holidays, you have to microtarget and be very strategic in your outreach. I know for the Jolly campaign, it has been and will continue to be a 24/7 campaign, and no stone will go unturned.”