SEMINOLE — Only four years ago, Marco Rubio was a little-known Republican Senate hopeful who enlisted the likes of Mitt Romney in a showdown with then-GOP Gov. Charlie Crist the 2010 midterm elections.
Today, Rubio said he was having a bit of deja vu. Only this time, Rubio was the top-tier Republican who came to town to stump for lesser-known GOP candidate David Jolly.
Jolly faces Democrat Alex Sink and Libertarian Lucas Overby in the special election to replace Republican U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young in District 13. Both campaigns have attracted the attention of Republicans and Democrats at the national level, as the election is seen as a test case for the upcoming midterms.
Yet how the party’s top members play into local campaigning is completely different.
Jolly’s campaign is focusing on controversial issues on the national level and calling Sink a rubber stamp for the president’s agenda, while Sink is distancing herself from high-level Democratic operatives, at least on the surface, instead aligning herself with local elected Democrats and independents.
“They really have to localize the campaign by-and-large so that the national ticket doesn’t drag her down,” said University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett. “On the Republican side, it’s just the opposite. They want to nationalize the race. And tie her to ‘Obamacare.’ So their Republican friends are going to be visible.”
Rubio was ostensibly in town to talk about the federal policies that impact on seniors – namely the Affordable Care Act, which Rubio and Jolly would like to see repealed.
“Our country is living through, now, an incredibly disruptive change in our health care system brought about by this president and the Democrat allies that he has in Congress,” Rubio told Jolly supporters at an independent living facility for seniors.
Last month, U.S. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and former presidential candidate, endorsed Jolly. Last week, former Gov. Jeb Bush, who is perennially floated as a presidential candidate, cut a pro-Jolly ad that was one of two funded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Sink, meanwhile, has touted her support from dozens of Pinellas elected officials – she showed up at St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman’s election night party – as well as small businesses and organizations such as the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, which announced its endorsement of her today.
Democratic candidates aren’t the only ones to avoid party leaders who would normally be allies. In the 2006 midterms, for example, former President George W. Bush, in the last half of his second term, was frequently left off the guest lists of Republican candidates running that year.
Republicans, as one might expect, are skeptical.
“Alex Sink wants to deceive Pinellas voters by pretending she is independent but her entire campaign is being funded by Nancy Pelosi and Washington Democrats,” said Katie Prill, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based National Congressional Campaign Committee.
Top-tier Democrats such as President Barack Obama, House Speaker Pelosi and Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz are at arm’s length for Sink, at least on the surface. Pelosi and Wasserman-Schultz have headlined fundraisers for Sink, but only in Washington. Vice President Joe Biden is the biggest Democrat to come to Florida to rally the troops for Sink – but he won’t be near the district. He’ll be fundraising for Sink on Wednesday, but the event takes place in Coral Springs in Broward County.
“Within Democratic circles, Obama and Biden are still big draws, especially when it comes to raising money,” Jewett said.
It may seem counter to the conventional wisdom that special elections are about firing up a candidate’s base voters, but Jewett said the number of independent voters in the district is too big to ignore.
“The theory is, if you only get your Democratic base fired up, you do so at the expense of moderate voters,” he said. “It’s sort of the tap dance they have to do on the Democrat side.”