CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) — Once a solidly Republican bastion of Northern snowbirds and conservative retirees, this stretch of coastal beach towns and sprawling subdivisions has moved toward the political middle.
Voters in this suburban St. Petersburg district backed former President George W. Bush in 2004 before narrowly supporting Barack Obama twice. Now, the death of longtime Rep. Bill Young has made Florida's 13th District the proving ground for political arguments that both Republicans and Democrats hope will resonate with moderate voters in next year's midterm elections.
Democrats hope to use the special election to fill Young's seat to hammer Republicans over the government shutdown that far-right demands helped trigger. Republicans plan to blister Democrats over the disastrous rollout of Obama's health care law.
The political stakes are high, giving both parties an opportunity to test messages ahead of next year's midterm elections — and win the right to claim momentum. Democrats want to hang onto control of the Senate and retake the House, critical steps for a Democratic president hoping to notch second-term legislative victories. Republicans, in turn, seek absolute power across Capitol Hill in hopes of stymieing Obama's final years.
In a sign of the contest's national importance, Democrats cleared the field for Alex Sink, Florida's former chief financial officer and the party's gubernatorial nominee in 2010. Republicans, meanwhile, are embroiled in a costly three-way primary that has split the GOP establishment and divided Young's family.
Republican David Jolly, a longtime aide to the congressman, claims Young's death-bed endorsement, as well as the backing of his widow, Beverly. State Rep. Kathleen Peters highlights the support of Bill Young II, the late lawmaker's son. Mark Bircher, a retired brigadier general in the Marine Corps Reserve, also is running.
Young was first elected to Congress in 1970, representing a district whose lines were redrawn several times. He withstood changing political currents over four decades to become the longest serving Republican in the House. And he did it by cultivating a reputation as a bipartisan conciliator who used the appropriations process to land hundreds of millions of dollars in federal earmarks for the district and the state.
He announced his retirement shortly before his death, seeming disillusioned by Washington's partisan brinkmanship. "It seems there's too much politics," he told the Tampa Bay Times. The candidates jockeying to succeed him are billing themselves as heirs to Young's brand of pragmatic governing as they sound their party's national themes.
"It's time to fix what's broken in Washington," Jolly says in a TV ad, describing the federal health care law as "a mess of broken promises." Jolly and Peters are tying Sink to the "Obamacare" debacle and calling for major changes to the law. Republicans see it as a potent line of criticism in a district where nearly a quarter of residents are over 64.
Republicans also are distancing themselves from the government shutdown that tarnished their party's image. Jolly said he would not have sided with House Republicans earlier this year who demanded changes in the health care law in exchange for essential federal funding, though he blamed Obama for the resulting shutdown.
"Republicans should realize that we don't have a majority of the federal government," he said. "I believe it's the job of a member of Congress to fight as hard as you can, but at the end of the day, if you don't have the votes, you don't have the votes."
Peters demurred on the defunding bill, but criticized Congress for not funding the government. "We should have had a solution long before we hit the deadline," she said. "I'm focused on stopping the gridlock. We need to move forward. Our people can't wait any longer."
The centrist talk is a reflection of the changing district. The younger, more racially diverse population of St. Petersburg has helped make the region swing-voting territory. Last month, the city elected a Democrat as mayor for the first time since 1975.
While they largely agree on the issues, the Republicans are drawing distinctions through their professional backgrounds in the run-up to the Jan. 14 primary. Peters, a former city commissioner and mayor elected to the statehouse last year, has criticized Jolly for his work as a "Washington lobbyist." Jolly, who runs a consulting firm, said his Washington experience makes him the only candidate ready to serve without a learning curve.
Meanwhile, at campaign stops in senior centers and farmers markets across the district, Sink focuses on the shutdown. Once the sole Democrat in a GOP-dominated cabinet, she is billing herself as a bipartisan problem-solver who can break the Capitol gridlock.
"Washington is broken," she told supporters at the opening of her Clearwater campaign headquarters recently. "Yes, I'm a Democrat but I also know how to work with Republicans and Democrats to figure out how to move our country forward."
In a nod to the late congressman's popularity, Sink told her supporters that she wants to "build on the legacy of Bill Young" by working on veterans' issues. Sink rarely mentions the federal health care law, instead focusing on the economy and the coastal district's ballooning flood insurance rates. In an interview, she criticized the White House for its handling of the website rollout and said she would support GOP-sponsored legislation to permit the sale of individual health coverage that falls short of requirements in the law.
"I'm going to Congress to hold the administration accountable for rolling out a plan that works, that achieves the ultimate goal, which is access to affordable health insurance," she said. With little time and little information, some voters are looking for someone like Young.
At a recent fundraiser at Crabby Bill's seafood bar in Indian Rocks Beach, Jolly escorted Beverly Young to an outdoor patio, where more than 70 supporters had gathered for plates of fish and chips. The candidate shook hands and posed for pictures while Young's widow mingled with supporters.
"We supported Bill Young for many years," said Doris Siddell, a 75-year-old retiree from Largo. "If on his deathbed he wanted David to take over, that's all I need."