ST. PETERSBURG —Republican David Jolly survived a fierce and contentious campaign to capture the District 13 Congressional seat in Pinellas County, then vowed to work hard to build consensus.
“Tonight is not about claiming victory,” Jolly told supporters between blaring country tunes in his victory speech at the Sheraton Sand Key resort in Clearwater. “Tonight is about committing to serve.”
Jolly, a lobbyist who began the race as a presumptive underdog, defeated Democrat Alex Sink and Libertarian Lucas Overby to win the seat and replace his former boss, C.W. Bill Young, who held it for 43 years until his death in October created the need for the special election.
Jolly had 48.4 percent of the vote, Sink, the former Florida Chief Financial Officer, got 46.6 percent, and Overby got 4.8 percent. Sink struck an early lead as the mail and early voting ballots results were posted. But as precinct returns came in, Jolly gained on Sink, eventually surpassing her.
District 13 includes most Pinellas County from Dunedin south, except for portions of downtown and south St. Petersburg.
A race that normally would play a minor role on the national stage, if any, became a media focal point as political observers tried to divine what lies ahead in campaigns for the upcoming midterm election in November. Fueled by millions of dollars from outside political groups, the campaign was filled with attack advertisements and distortions of the candiates' records and positions.
“I have very good news tonight,” Jolly told his supporters in his opening remarks. “No more commercials.”
Jolly, 41, pledged to bring the community together in the wake of the bitter campaign. Acknowledging the political parties and voters have different views on major issues, Jolly said he would work in a bipartisan way in Congress.
“Where we can work together and build consensus and find common ground, we have to do that,” he said.
As Jolly's party was getting lively, Sink's - held at the Hilton St. Petersburg Carillon Park - hadn't begun yet. The campaign kept the doors shut to the ballroom where her party was until about 7:30 p.m. By the time her supporters rushed in, news had spread. The music - her playlist ranged from Sonic Youth to James Brown - stayed low, and much of the crowd looked glum.
Sink, 65, appeared at the podium for a brief speech tinged with emotion.
“Obviously you have heard the results and they are not the results that any of us wanted,” she said.
Sink said she called Jolly and “congratulated him on a hard-fought campaign,” and thanked the more than 2,000 volunteers who made so many calls and knocked on so many doors.
“We don't know what the future holds, but I'll do what I've always done and continue to serve my community and I want to thank you all again,” she said. “Although we're disappointed, the bars are open.”
The crowded laughed, gave a booming cheer, Sink hugged some supporters and left the room without talking to the press and that was that.
Jolly, Sink, and Overby, 27, often were overshadowed by outside political groups and the millions in ads they bought in what was the most expensive Congressional race in history.
Republicans largely targeted Sink on the Affordable Care Act, given that she supports changing the law instead of a full repeal - which Jolly and many Republicans say they prefer. Democrats, meanwhile, hit Jolly for his job as a lobbyist and for his support from ultra conservative groups, and accused him of wanting to privatize Social Security.
The two major party candidates were tightly scripted and seldom spoke candidly or off-message, but their campaigns ultimately had little control over how they were portrayed in the media.
Attack ads from a spate of political action committees and superPACs took aspects of Sink's and Jolly's records, as well as out-of-context quotes, and blew them up into inflammatory, barely-if-at-all true attack ads.
Money spent by outside groups far overshadowed what the campaigns themselves spent by nearly 2-1. Sink and Jolly pulled in about $2.5 million and $1 million, respectively, while outside money spent in the race ballooned to nearly $9 million.
“This race is not about defending a broken agenda in Washington or advancing a broken agenda in Washington, this race is about representing Pinellas County and serving the people right here in own community,” Jolly said.
Residency became an issue in the campaign, as Sink, of Thonotosassa, rented a condominium in St. Petersburg to run in the district.
Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker made reference to that, telling Jolly's supporters: “He was born in Pinellas County. He lives in Pinellas County. And he served Pinellas County” with Young.
Jolly was the former counsel and aide to Young, of Indian Shores. Echoing his former boss, who used to ask him, “what do you know good,” Jolly told his supporters, “We did good tonight.”
Among voters at polling places Tuesday, the race's negative tone was an unwelcome standout regardless of their political leanings.
“I didn't like it,” said Glenn Chase, a Clearwater Republican who voted for Jolly because he is against opposes Obamacare. “I thought it was very unprofessional. I hate attack ads in general, but it's the way the game is played, seems.”
James Ostrand, a Democrat from St. Petersburg, supported Sink because her beliefs are more in line with his, and he didn't like that Jolly was a registered lobbyist. The ads from either side were a turnoff, he said.
“They were rampant,” he said. “I don't watch a lot of broadcast television, but I do a lot of streaming and, even with streaming, we were getting hammered with targeted ads for the campaign ...It seems like most of the ads coming from the candidates themselves were more about them and positive, whereas the negative campaign ads seemed to have been coming from political action committees.”
Some voters, particularly Democrats and Independents, received dozens of telephone calls and mailings urging them to vote for Sink.
Largo Independent Frank Akers said the barrage drove him to vote for Overby.
“Well, I got so damn much mail from Alex Sink,” he said. “They called me six or seven times a night. Screw 'em. I'm going to see if there isn't something we can't do about them.”
Jolly will likely now have to start campaigning for the regularly scheduled midterm election from square one, though there is no telling whom he will face.
Reporter Stephen Thompson contributed to this report.