A longtime aide to Florida Congressman C.W. Bill Young clinched the Republican nomination Tuesday for a special election to fill the House seat of the late lawmaker.
Riding a wave of anger over the botched rollout of President Barack Obama's health care law, David Jolly bested State Rep. Kathleen Peters and retired Marine Brig. Gen. Mark Bircher, capturing 44 percent of the vote in a district that encompasses nearly all of Pinellas County on Florida's Gulf Coast.
Jolly will face Democrat Alex Sink and Libertarian Lucas Overby in the March 11 general election.
In his acceptance speech Tuesday evening, Jolly wasted no time in criticizing Sink, who until recently lived in Hillsborough County, across Tampa Bay.
She moved into the district from Thonotosassa — about 30 miles away — to run for the seat. Sink has said she has years of business experience in the area.
Jolly claimed that Sink was handpicked by Washington, D.C., Democrats.
"My opponent wants to win this race for Washington, D.C., I want to win this race for Pinellas County," he said.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Jolly said he doesn't feel that Sink is "equipped" to handle certain issues in Pinellas County because she's not from the area. He said that Young brought a significant number of defense manufacturing jobs to the area and because he worked with Young for years, he can continue that legacy.
"In Pinellas County, it's something I'm able to protect. I don't believe she can do that," he said.
Within moments of Jolly's win, Sink sent out a news release saying that she wants to bring together people of both parties to work on job creation and flood insurance issues for people in Pinellas County.
As the first major matchup in advance of this year's midterm elections, the contest has already drawn national attention from both major political parties. Florida's 13th Congressional District is shaping up to be the proving ground for political arguments Republicans and Democrats hope will resonate with moderate voters in November.
"We know this is going to be a national race," Jolly said Tuesday, adding that he wants to honor Young, a man he considers his political mentor.
The district is considered a tossup: voters here backed former President George W. Bush in 2004 before narrowly supporting Obama twice. Young represented the area for more than four decades before his death in October. He was one of the longest-serving Republicans in the House.
Democrats hope to use the special election to fill Young's seat to hammer Republicans over political dysfunction, which they say is exemplified by the government shutdown that far-right demands helped trigger last year. Republicans plan to blister Democrats over the disastrous launch of Obama's health care law.
While all three Republicans in Tuesday's primary favored repealing the health care law, Jolly cast himself as the staunchest opponent of the federal health overhaul.
In mailers, he characterized Peters as an "Obamacare" supporter after she said the law should not be repealed without a comprehensive replacement. In turn, Peters quickly said she backed a full repeal, in addition to falsely claiming that Jolly had lobbied for "government-run health care." (According to PolitiFact Florida, he said he lobbied for the transportation projects of a company that also opened a health exchange call center.)
With a little more than two months to campaign, the candidates also sought to attach themselves to the beloved Young, whose legacy loomed over the race.
Jolly, a former Young aide, claimed the congressman's death bed endorsement, as well as the backing of Young's widow, who appeared in TV ads. Peters, a former city commissioner and mayor elected to the statehouse in 2012, highlighted the support of Bill Young II, the late lawmaker's son.
Sink, meanwhile, had the Democratic field to herself.
The former Florida chief financial officer and 2010 gubernatorial nominee has spent the last few months canvassing the district, railing against Washington gridlock and raising money. According to recent campaign finance reports, Sink has raised more than $1.1 million – more money than the entire GOP field combined.