PINELLAS PARK, Fla. (AP) — President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul is getting its first test ahead of the 2014 midterm elections Tuesday in a Tampa-area House district where Democrats and Republicans have spent millions of dollars trying out national strategies for the rest of the year.
The candidates are Democrat Alex Sink and Republican David Jolly, and their contest to succeed the late GOP Rep. Bill Young is considered a tossup, although Libertarian candidate Lucas Overby could affect the outcome by siphoning votes away from both candidates.
The implications of the dueling messages for the midterm elections inspired both parties to call in star advocates like President Bill Clinton and former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, in addition to blanketing the district with ads, calls and mailings. More than $11 million has been spent on the race, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit group that tracks government information. More than one in four registered voters in the district is older than 65, a population that could account for more than half of those casting ballots.
As Jolly and Sink shook hands around the district Tuesday, steady streams of people filed into retirement communities, churches and libraries to cast ballots. As of Monday, 27 percent of registered voters had cast ballots through absentee or early voting, with Election Day turnout increasing throughout the afternoon.
Outside a historic feed store in Largo, many voters expressed disgust at the amount of money spent on the race — and the relentless barrage of television ads and mailers that were on par with a presidential election.
“I stopped watching television because the ads were driving me crazy,” said William McConnell, a 72-year-old forensic accountant and lifelong Republican. “It was packed with lies on both sides.” He cast his ballot for Overby as a protest vote.
A few miles away, outside a retirement community in Pinellas Park, voter Fred Olson agreed.
“It’s very difficult to vote for candidates who condone that type of campaigning, even though you might like them as individuals, the campaigning is outrageous,” he said.
The battle for Florida’s 13th District seat is a prequel of sorts to the national fight this year over who controls Congress in the last two years of Obama’s final presidential term. The House is expected to remain under Republican control. But in the Senate, Republicans are hoping to leverage Obama’s unpopularity and his health care law’s wobbly start to gain the six seats required to control the 100-member chamber.
That makes the race in Florida a pricey proving ground for both parties heading into November elections.
Jolly, backed by Republicans and outside groups, has campaigned on repealing the health care law, saying in one ad that Sink would undermine Medicare because of Democratic-passed cuts to programs under “Obamacare.”
The message is a rallying cry for Republican voters.
Sink and her allies, meanwhile, paint Jolly an extremist who wants to “take us back” to when people were denied coverage due to existing conditions. She has pledged to “to keep what’s right and fix what’s wrong” in the health care law while seizing on Jolly’s career as a lobbyist, accusing him of supporting efforts to privatize Social Security and gut Medicare.
“I feel like if you’re a lobbyist you’re not really looking out for the people,” said Jon Valesky, a 46-year-old Democrat who voted for Sink. On “Obamacare,” he said, “the wheels are already turning. People have to stop complaining about it.”
Clinton recorded a phone call last week seeking local volunteers to help with Sink’s campaign, and a half dozen House Democrats emailed fundraising appeals to their own supporters on her behalf. More than a third of Jolly’s campaign contributions came from members of Congress.
Meanwhile, Ryan joined Jolly on a conference call with voters. In a sign that the GOP is concerned about losing votes to the Libertarian candidate, Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul recorded a phone message for Jolly aimed at Overby’s supporters. Jolly himself spent the final hours of the race rallying Republicans. On Monday night, at the Twisted Martini restaurant in Clearwater, Jolly urged the rank-and-file attending the Pinellas County GOP’s monthly meeting to get voters to the polls. “Pick up the phone, shoot an email,” he told a white-haired crowd of about 100 people.
While Republicans held the congressional seat for four decades until Young’s death last year, the district’s voters favored Obama in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. The district is 37 percent Republican, 35 percent Democrat and 24 percent independent.
Sink has outspent Jolly by more than 3 to 1 on television advertising, though outside groups aligned with the GOP have helped narrow the overall Democratic advantage.
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