CLEARWATER, Fla. – The race to succeed the late C.W. “Bill” Young has stunned voters here accustomed to sleepy campaigns over the genteel congressman’s popular four-decade tenure.
Almost twice as much money has been spent in the general election – at least $8.3 million by the nominees to fill Young’s seat, the party campaign committees and outside activist groups – than Young spent combined winning re-election in the previous six races this century.
Perhaps most surprising in the neck-and-neck race between Democrat Alex Sink and Republican David Jolly, Sink and her allies have a decided financial edge, blanketing the airwaves with more ads than her opponents ahead of Tuesday’s special election. This money has given her the chance to win despite lingering Democratic doubts that their voters will show up in a low turnout special election.
While Jolly fought a tough primary, draining of him of resources for the general election, Sink hoarded her cash for an eight-week sprint to the finish. Her campaign has spent $2 million on television advertising in the general election campaign, compared to just $542,000 for Jolly, according to a tally sheet from a conservative group monitoring the spending.
Moreover, Sink has spent $1.7 million on broadcast networks, the most expensive advertising real estate delivering the most voter eyeballs, and Jolly has spent less than $430,000 on broadcast, according to the estimate.
“Noticeably, she didn’t even come on the air until the day after the Republican primary was over. Literally for two months it was a campaign based on fundraising, and then planning about an eight-week general election campaign. We’ve had to absorb a lot of paid media,” Jolly told reporters Wednesday during a meet-and-greet with volunteers at his headquarters in this town due west of Tampa.
Democrats remain far from confident about the outcome in this battleground district, which President Obama narrowly won in 2012. They maintain that this district has a high variability on turnout during presidential years to midterms, and that a special election in March is even worse.
In five public polls from January to the end of February, the likely voter models showed turnout would tilt between 8 and 13 percentage points toward Republicans. (Those polls have also shown a very tight race between Sink and Jolly.)
Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has publicly and privately been warning that he believes turnout would be 13 percentage points in the GOP favor.
So Democrats have made voter turnout a key, particularly in a district where about 70 percent of the ballots will be cast in early voting. They’re trying to take lessons from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s successful turnout model last November, in which the Democrat’s team managed to have an electorate that came close to resembling the presidential turnout in 2012 in the Old Dominion.
However, if you talk to the best field experts in either party, they will tell you that get-out-the-vote efforts are only able to shift the margins a few percentage points so that a close race can go their way at the finish. Without a good messaging operation to mold the voters’ opinions, turnout won’t matter because your candidate will be so far behind.
According to Republicans, that’s where Sink’s financial edge has come in handy, targeting Jolly on the air with unyielding attacks for his previous occupation as a Washington-based lobbyist. The ads have accused him of lobbying to privatize Social Security – anathema in a district where nearly 55 percent of voters are over 45 years old – and dismantling Medicare.
Jolly has had support from outside conservative groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has spent at least $1.2 million in a campaign trying to link Sink to Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Still, when all the outside support is combined with the candidate spending, Democrats have spent nearly $1 million more on television than Republicans.
In the week from Feb. 25 to March 3, Jolly and his GOP-aligned allies spent less than $1 million on air, while Sink and her allies spent nearly $1.4 million.
The best money spent in any campaign is from the actual candidates, who get the cheapest advertising rates and who can then control their own message, and that’s made Sink’s fundraising edge so key to this race, something that outsiders credit to her past statewide races and name recognition. Jolly is a first-time candidate who used to work for Young.
When they reported finances to the Federal Election Commission in late February, Sink had raised more than $2.5 million, to Jolly’s $1 million. Most of his funds had already been burned in the primary, leaving him at that stage with just $182,000. She still had nearly $1 million to spend.
On Wednesday, an exasperated Jolly explained to reporters that he wanted to advertise about the good government lobbying clients he had worked for over the years, from the “Wounded Warriors” effort for veterans to child safety.
He said he can’t. “It’s the resources,” he explained.