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GOP field in Pinellas’ District 13 race still unclear

Published:   |   Updated: November 18, 2013 at 06:34 AM

Today marks the start of the short window in which candidates can qualify for the special election to replace U.S. Rep. C.W. “Bill” Young, the longtime congressman from District 13, who died last month.

The national media is calling the race a bellwether heading into the 2014 midterm elections. Yet, as the special election’s 30-hour qualifying period is about to begin, it’s still unclear whether there will be a Republican primary.

Pinellas County Republican Party officials were hoping for a clean lead-up to the March 11 special election, but it’s still possible that state Rep. Kathleen Peters might jump in to challenge David Jolly in the Jan. 11 primary. On Friday, the former South Pasadena mayor said she would make an announcement today about a possible run.

Jolly, the Washington lobbyist and former Young aide, announced he was running on Nov. 7 and has stressed his ties to Pinellas County. He has a house in Indian Shores and was born in Dunedin. Those efforts are meant to position him against Democrat Alex Sink, the former state chief financial officer and gubernatorial candidate, who lives in Thonotosassa in eastern Hillsborough County.

Some Pinellas Republicans, though, are skeptical Jolly has the name recognition to defeat Sink, who seems unlikely to draw a primary challenger. Supporters at Jolly’s announcement included Young’s widow, Beverly, and other Young family members, as well as party operatives, but there was little representation from top local Republican officials, who may be hesitant to throw their support behind Jolly just yet.

“I’m going to wait to see who qualifies on Monday before I decide who to endorse,” said Safety Harbor Mayor Joseph Ayoub. “If Kathleen Peters jumps, in I’ll be behind Kathleen Peters.”

Ayoub was part of a long list of Republicans floated as possible contenders for the seat when Young announced his retirement last month and then died barely a week later. Others included state senators Jack Latvala and Jeff Brandes, former St. Petersburg mayor Rick Baker, Clearwater Mayor and former Young aide George Cretekos, former Clearwater mayor Frank Hibbard and County Commissioners Karen Seel and John Morroni. Each dropped out as the weeks went on. Many were waiting on Baker to decide whether he would run, given his high name recognition, but Baker endorsed Jolly after taking himself out of contention. Talk of Peters running didn’t ramp up until the past week or so, when a few local Republicans — led by Latvala — called for a candidate with more pronounced local ties.

The GOP has already criticized Sink for not living in District 13, which includes most of Pinellas County from Dunedin south, excluding downtown and South St. Petersburg. Running a Republican with less name recognition and little local visibility could weaken the effectiveness of those attacks on Sink, who has said she is shopping for a house in Pinellas.

Jolly, meanwhile, stresses his Pinellas connections whenever possible.

“I was born and raised in Pinellas County,” he said in an email. “And, professionally, I have spent my entire career working on behalf of the people of Pinellas County, advocating for and supporting our community interests and serving in many civic and community leadership roles here at home.”

While Jolly might not have full backing of his party, he does have strong supporters, including Baker and Brandes, who endorsed him Thursday, along with deep-pocketed businessmen such as Bill Edwards, Mel Sembler and Jim McDougald.

His campaign fundraising exceeded $150,000 as of Friday, while Sink was a few thousand shy of $200,000.

“I did what I’ve done with people from throughout the county over the past week,” Jolly said in an email. “I asked them to consider my qualifications, I’ve met with them, I’ve asked for their support, and I have been honored that people have responded with such affirmation of my candidacy.”

The qualifying period runs from 8 a.m. today to noon Tuesday.

Mail ballots for the primary will be sent to service members serving overseas on Nov. 27, to out-of-county voters on Dec. 10 and to in-county absentee voters on Dec. 13.

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Twitter: @kbradshawTBO