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Politics

Death will test hopefuls for Young's seat

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Published:   |   Updated: October 20, 2013 at 09:08 AM

The death Friday of U.S. Congressman C.W. Bill Young stunned those still contemplating the 22-term lawmaker's announcement days earlier that he would retire at the end of his term — in December 2014.

The U.S. Constitution, though, requires his now vacated seat be occupied, and fairly soon.

That means prospective candidates for Young's post in the U.S. House of Representatives, widely considered a swing seat in the Republican/Democratic balance of power, face a dilemma.

Stepping in quickly might appear insensitive to Young's 13th Congressional District constituents and party operatives on both sides of the aisle who are mourning the death the leader widely revered for his effect on the Tampa Bay area and beyond during nearly 43 years in office. But waiting too long to announce their candidacies could cost hopefuls dearly — both in raising money and in face-time in an election cycle dramatically shortened by the congressman's death.

“We just lost a legend,” said Micheal Guju, chair of the Pinellas County Republican Party. “There's no one in their right mind that feels comfortable about that; no one feels great about that.”

After Young announced he was retiring when his current term ends — and before the serious nature of his hospitalization became known late last week — most potential candidates assumed they were preparing for an August primary election and a general election three months later. Those elections still will take place, but Young's seat cannot go unfilled for the remainder of the current term.

“People are going to have to make decisions really quickly here now,” said Kyle Kondik, a congressional commentator at the University of Virginia Center for Politics and managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball.

Talk of possible candidates has emerged in the less than two weeks since the Republican from Seminole announced his retirement. Frequently mentioned potential candidates include former St. Petersburg mayor Rick Baker, Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel and Bill Young II, Young's son, on the Republican side; and former state chief financial officer Alex Sink and Pinellas commissioners Charlie Justice and Janet Long, both former state legislators, on the Democratic side.

So far two candidates, Democrat Jessica Ehrlich, a lawyer; and Republican Nick Zoller, a political consultant, have declared their candidacies.

Complicating matters is that no one knows, in the wake of Young's death, when special elections to fill his seat will take place.

Florida law requires the governor to consult with the secretary of state in setting dates for special primary and general elections, but otherwise there is little guidance. All the state law requires is a two-week minimum period between the qualifying deadline and the primary, and another two weeks between the primary and the general elections.

Some political observers speculate Gov. Rick Scott might take his time setting a date. Polls show the public's perception of Republicans, particularly, took a hit during the recent government shutdown, so Scott might wait until the party wins back some favor.

“It may well be advantageous for the Republicans to stretch this out,” said University of South Florida political science Professor Darryl Paulson.

GOP leaders counter that Democrats locally and statewide have been weak in recent decades, and thus lack a deep bench of potential candidates.

“We have the infrastructure and we have the people in place,” Republican leader Guju said. “We're going to do whatever's necessary to keep this seat.”

Local Democrats, meanwhile, say their focus is on St. Petersburg's mayoral and city council races. After Nov. 5, they say, they will apply their momentum to the District 13 congressional seat.

“We're just going to have to keep people in place and work through the holidays,” said Mark Hanisee, chairman of Pinellas' Democratic Party. “Democrats are very excited at the prospect of winning the seat. If anything, this is going to get the party riled up.”

Whether the special elections take place this year or in early 2014, the shortened time frame might be an advantage to those with established reputations such as, potentially, Republican Baker, the former mayor, and Democrat Sink, who lost a close gubernatorial race to Scott in 2010.

“With a shortened cycle, it gives advantage to a candidate with an established track record and deep pockets,” Paulson said.

Those already raising money, such as Ehrlich, the only declared Democrat in the race, also might have an edge. Ehrlich ran against Young in 2012 and has amassed contributions in six figures since announcing a second run for the seat.

If whomever wins the general election then seeks a full term, he or she would have to run again within less in than a year, possibly against the same contender.

“There could be a rematch in the fall,” Kondik said.

Amid the current uncertainty, one thing is clear for residents of District 13, which includes most of the Pinellas County peninsula south of Dunedin, except for Democrat-leaning downtown and south St. Petersburg.

“There's going to be (media) saturation,” Paulson said. “There's going to have to be.”

He said state and national Republicans and Democrats will pour millions of dollars into the contest in attempts to maintain or gain, respectively, a majority in the U.S. House.

“If there were to be an election that was going to be a bellwether, this would be it,” Kondik said.

kbradshaw@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-7999

Twitter: @kbradshawTBO

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