CLEARWATER, Fla. — The last time this stretch of the Gulf Coast faced a competitive congressional race, Richard Nixon was president. But the death of Rep. C.W. Bill Young last month has set off an intense contest to fill the seat in Florida’s 13th District, a place that will be the proving ground for the arguments both national parties will make in the midterm elections.
On the Republican side, a Jan. 14 primary will feature a three-way run-off for the spot on to replace Young, the longest serving House Republican in history. The winner will face Democrat Alex Sink in a March 11 special election.
For both parties, this purple-trending district will be the first chance to test key components of their 2014 messages: Democrats will talk about the recklessness of the government shutdown, while Republicans will focus on the debacle of the health-care law roll out.
Although Republicans will have a competitive primary here, the tea party element will be largely absent, allowing them to dwell on the Affordable Care Act without having to worry about attacks from the party’s right flank.
“This is not a deep-red, tea party Glenn Beck-istan,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican strategist. “It’s a squishier district. It just is.”
For Democrats who want to build back their majority in the House, the district’s support for President Obama in 2008 and 2012 makes it a prime spot for a pick up, given the moderate political leanings of the Republican candidates.
Early signs of the national-turned-local issues were seen this week during the monthly meeting of the Republican Club of Greater Largo, where Republican candidate and former Young staffer David Jolly fielded questions from voters about his candidacy.
Several of the questions asked were about how the health-care law could be used against Sink, the former state chief financial officer.
“Let me start with Sink being able to solve this,” Jolly said. “The Obama-Pelosi team got us into this mess. It’s absolute nonsense to think the Obama-Pelosi-Sink team is going to get us out of it. It’s not.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee has also chimed in, through Internet ads, to try to link Sink to the troubled implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
But if Republicans hope that the issue will help them in the special election, Democrats are hoping the race will mark the first congressional referendum on the shutdown. And with possibility of another shutdown in January looming, Florida Republicans worry it would destroy the possibility to keep Young’s district.
“If we have another government shutdown, we could put Mother Theresa in that seat and we would lose,” Wilson said.
At an event this week at a senior center, Sink seized on the obstruction message, criticizing congressional Republicans’ attempts to repeal the law.
“Now, what we don’t want to have happen is, like, the Republicans advocating, voting — I don’t know — 40-some times to repeal the Affordable Care Act,” she said.
And while she dismissed the idea that national themes would affect the election, saying she will “focus on the things that I know the people in this district really care about,” she quickly added: “I talked to too many small businesses and people who were really negatively impacted by the government shutdown, for example.”
A potential shutdown isn’t the only thing that could complicate Republicans’ chances of holding on to the seat.
On Monday, state Rep. Kathleen Peters filed papers to run, setting up a competitive Republican primary. Mark Bircher, a retired brigadier general in the Marine Corps Reserve and a political newcomer, also qualified to run.
“I think it would have been nicer if there hadn’t been [a primary]. But there is one, so that’s the way it is,” said Casey Cox, president of the Republican Club of Greater Largo. “It’ll cost a lot of money. It’ll be an interesting race; it really will.”
Chet Renfro, a longtime friend of Young’s and Jolly’s campaign treasurer, was less optimistic.
“It’s bad news,” said Renfro, who had a Young pin from the 111th Congress affixed to the pocket of his blazer. “It’s going to cost money, and we are still going to end up with the same party.”
But unlike ahead of several recent Republican primaries that have been a race to the right, Jolly and Peters have stressed their abilities to work across the aisle. “We are going to dispense with the rhetoric and the rancor that national party machines and political bosses throw out every day,” Jolly said during his speech to the Largo Republicans. “The one thing everybody in the middle can agree on is we are sick and tired of the vitriol from the far right and the far left.”
Peters struck a similar tone in an interview Wednesday.
“I come from local government, and our city and municipality races were nonpartisan,” she said. “I’m about problem solving.”
Florida Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry said that the primary was “healthy,” and that the candidate who wins “will be in the mold of Bill Young.” The memory of Young is looming large on both sides, with voters and officials saying they hope his successor will adopt his nonconfrontational governing style.
“This is the unique thing about Bill Young,” said Van Farber, chairman of the 67th District for the state’s Democratic Party. “You don’t just win 22 times in a row out of luck. He won with Democratic voters.”