ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Republican voters in a large swath of Pinellas County will pick one of three candidates Tuesday to run in the general election to fill the congressional seat of U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, who died in October.
The congressional district encompasses almost all of densely populated Pinellas County, on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. More than 31,000 have already voted by mail, according to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections website.
Whoever wins the primary will face Democrat Alex Sink and Libertarian Lucas Overby in the March 11 general election. That contest is expected to garner national attention from both major political parties — the race could be a referendum of sorts for President Barack Obama’s healthcare law, or a bellwether for the 2014 midterm elections.
The district is considered a tossup: it’s backed former President George W. Bush in 2004 and narrowly supported Obama twice. The seat has been held by Republicans since 1970, when Young was first elected. He announced his retirement in October, shortly before his death.
One of the candidates in the race — David Jolly — worked for Young as a congressional aide and claims Young’s death-bed endorsement, as well as the backing of Young’s widow. Jolly, who is 41, has a law degree and has worked as a lobbyist.
Another candidate, 52-year-old Kathleen Peters, was a city commissioner and mayor in South Pasadena. She is currently a state representative.
The third candidate, 60-year-old Mark Bircher, is a retired brigadier general in the Marine Corps Reserve. He is an attorney and commercial airline pilot.
During the campaign, both Jolly and Peters have tied Sink to the “Obamacare” health care law, saying that the law needs major changes. Peters and Jolly have also criticized each other, with Peters raising Jolly’s past as a lobbyist as a potential negative. Jolly, who runs a consulting firm, said his Washington experience makes him the only candidate ready to serve without a learning curve.
Jolly has chided Peters for not being critical enough of Obama’s health care reforms in past statements, although she says the law should be repealed.
There are slightly more Democrats than Republicans in Pinellas County; 224,422 registered Democrats and 219,106 Republicans. The Supervisor of Elections office reports that 169,096 people are not registered with either party.
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