Top Democratic House target in Florida's 13th Congressional District not so safe

By John Breslin | Nov 7, 2016

Florida’s 13th Congressional District was supposed to be leaning strongly Democratic this year following a court-ordered redistricting.

It is one of the top Democratic House targets this November, with challenger, former Gov. Charlie Crist, hoping to unseat the Republican incumbent, U.S. Rep. David Jolly.

A large amount of outside money is being poured into the race by the Democratic House Majority PAC, which has reserved $1.47 million in ad buys, and by mid-August had spent close to $800,000 opposing Jolly, Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings report.

And that was even before the Republican, who stepped back into the race after dropping out of Florida’s U.S. Senate primary following Marco Rubio’s return, had sent off a primary challenger in late August.

But strange things are happening in Pinellas County, with the latest poll, considered the most independent of the election season so far, throwing up some interesting numbers.

Republicans holding the purse strings in Washington told Roll Call earlier this year that Jolly would likely receive little central financial support from the party, or from outside groups. He has yet to receive any.

Yet this all may not be enough to beat back Crist’s challenge, particularly as political observers say Jolly has to poll well in the heavily Democratic south Pinellas County, including Crist's home town of St. Petersburg, if he is to have any realistic chance of winning, poll watchers say. 

But Jolly might poll surprisingly well in majority black districts of St. Petersburg. The Republican has zeroed in on trying to mine votes in those areas,

State Rep. Darryl Rouson, who represents the mid-town District 70 and is in his own race for a state senate seat, said those areas where the candidates are focusing their attention have "at times felt neglected."

Rouson told the Florida Record that he is a Democrat but is urging his constituents to "express themselves as best as they can on what they have seen." Rouson made clear he wants voters to come out in numbers for Hillary Clinton in an election that "has never been more critical."

But it does appear Crist, a St. Petersburg native, a one-time Republican, then an independent, now a Democrat, may be too well known among voters.

It also appears, observers contend, that this might be a bellwether, but in a different way than usual.

That's because Jolly may be a good indicator of how down ticket Republicans could fare in tough races with Donald Trump at the top of the list.    

One poll, by St. Pete Polls for, put Jolly more than three points ahead of Crist, 46 to 42.5 percent.

But there were, arguably, at least as interesting numbers beneath the headline figures.

More than 53 percent had a favorable view of Jolly, 25 percent an unfavorable view and 21 percent were unsure.

This contrasted with Crist’s 45 percent favorable rating, the same as his unfavorable numbers. Many fewer people were unsure.

The same poll put Hillary Clinton seven points ahead of Donald Trump, though this contrasts with President Obama’s 15 point advantage over Mitt Romney in 2012.

During the first debate between the candidates two weeks ago, Crist came out strongly in support of Clinton, described her as “very good” both as secretary of state and senator.

Then the former governor added, “The thing I like most about her is I believe that she is steady... . I believe that she is honest, and I look forward to voting for her.”

The latter part of his remarks, as he said the word honest, brought laughter from the crowd.  

Crist’s full support for Clinton contrasts with Jolly’s utter lack of support for, and sometimes tough criticism of, Trump.

Last December, Jolly said, “His brutal, bullying bigotry runs contrary to the very principles our forefathers fought so hard to defend.”

While staying quiet or softening his criticism during the Senate primary, Jolly refused to endorse Trump after he won the nomination.

Then, following his 75-25 percent primary victory over Trump-supporting Mark Bircher, Crist tried to link his opponent to the presidential nominee, saying, “It saddens me to think that anyone who supports Donald Trump’s agenda could ever represent Pinellas County.”

That led to the somewhat extraordinary — in a normal election year, at least — of the Republican congressional candidate releasing a video detailing his party’s top of the ticket nominee’s contributions to, and friendship with, his Democratic opponent.

In an interview with Sunshine State News, Jolly said he does not endorse Trump, and is unlikely to support him on Tuesday. 

While Jolly is a conservative fiscally and in many other ways, he describes himself as a maverick.

He introduced a bill prohibiting anyone on FBI’s terrorist watch list from buying a gun and legislation banning members of Congress from soliciting donations.

“I’m going to tell you something you rarely hear a member of Congress say: I think the climate’s changing. I think man’s had an impact, and we need to stop arguing about the science,” Jolly told a gathering at the University of South Florida.

This position is linked with his position on the environment more generally, as laid out on his campaign website.

Jolly has introduced a bill to extend the ban on oil and gas production in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and has “championed” funding to protect beaches, the Everglades and other natural habitats.


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