With people still grieving the death of U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, political strategists and candidates are grappling with the realities of finding someone else to represent the constituents whose interests he watched over for 42 years.
That process is likely to be complicated by a drastically compressed campaign schedule, the practical and financial complications of running two elections within months of each other and the added pressure of filling Young’s shoes under a national spotlight, attracted by the implications of a high-profile fight for a congressional seat that hasn’t been competitive in decades.
The 82-year-old Republican from Indian Shores, who died Oct. 18, was re-elected in 2012, and there are still 14 months remaining in his term.
The special election to fill the remainder of Young’s term needs to be held before the 2014 regular election for his District 13 seat. The qualifying for that election ends in May. A primary follows in August, and the general is in November.
That sets a tight time frame for the special election that’s riddled with potential political pitfalls for candidates, as well for as Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who has to set the date.
“It’ll be a perfect storm of a special election,” said Republican political consultant Sarah Bascom. “If you consider the time frame, if you consider the environment.”
When a U.S. Senate seat is vacated, the governor appoints someone to serve until the next statewide regular election. That’s what happened in 2009, when then-Gov. Charlie Crist appointed George LeMieux to replace the resigning Mel Martinez. Florida law is less explicit when it comes to U.S. House seats, though.
There are few restrictions on when the election can take place. The governor has to set the start and end dates of the candidate qualifying period, though there are no restrictions on its length. Florida law also requires a minimum of two weeks between the qualifying deadline and the primary for the special election and another two weeks between the election.
Because of the lingering sentiment following the recent government shutdown, Scott may wait to schedule a special election to give Republicans a better chance.
“On the other hand, the governor can’t leave a seat open,” said University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus.
Without somebody in the seat, there is no one to cast votes in Congress on behalf of District 13. Young’s staff will still work on behalf of constituents but will not have Young’s ability to pull strings. Scott, who is running for re-election in 2014, also runs the risk of appearing uncaring if he leaves the seat open for too long.
A quick election would set the campaign at a time when Young’s constituents and supporters are still grieving the loss of someone who, to many, embodied bipartisanship. Moving quickly would also force the GOP to raise money and campaign while its reputation is still recovering from the recent government shutdown — an impasse polls suggest hurt Republicans more than Democrats. That stigma may fade by December, but placing a fierce campaign squarely in the middle of the holidays could further disenchant voters.
The National Republican Congressional Committee caused a stir last week on the eve of Young’s funeral when it made a few robo-calls to Pinellas County voters asking which possible GOP contender they preferred. The Republican committee later apologized.
“This is still a state where manners matter,” MacManus said. “The idea that you would rush in and would be totally negative ... would be counter to the man they’re replacing.”
Come January, another round of talks on government spending could mean gridlock similar to what Washington saw this fall.
“When you’ve got another round of fiscal chaos discussions in January and February, it’s difficult to expect that either party’s going to look cool,” MacManus said.
Political observers are betting Scott may pick March 11 for the special election, given that 15 Pinellas County municipalities are holding local elections that day. Piggybacking on that already scheduled election date would be much less expensive for the state, which picks up the tab for special elections.
Having to run a campaign in so short a time and raise enough money for what’s expected to be a costly election — and then do it again in another few months — are likely to be key factors for prospective candidates.
When Young announced his retirement this month, Republican and Democratic candidate fields quickly began to take shape, and most were expecting a robust election cycle, including competitive primaries, in which they could raise funds to fuel media blitzes in the run-up to the August primary and the November 2014 general election.
Party support could quickly fall behind the biggest name with the best chance to amass a sizable war chest, potentially boxing out lesser-known candidates, analysts say.
“Now, with a shortened cycle, it gives advantage to a candidate with an established track record and deep pockets,” said Darryl Paulson, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
Possible Democratic contenders in the special election include former Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long. County Commissioner Charlie Justice, who ran against Young in 2010, said Friday he would not run in 2014. County Commission Chair Ken Welch and Crist were also considered potential contenders, but both have said they were not interested.
On the Republican side, possible contenders include former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, along with current Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, a longtime Young aide.
There’s also speculation that one of Young’s family members — possibly his widow Beverly, son Billy or brother Tom — or personal attorney David Jolly may get into the race.
Name recognition can be a positive factor in the race to fill a popular congressman’s seat, but it’s not necessarily everything.
“At the end of the day, you still have to have a strong campaign and be a strong campaigner,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor at the political website Sabato’s Crystal Ball.
Candidates who win their primaries will need to amass a war chest big enough to wage a successful battle of messages, and that could cost millions in the Tampa Bay area’s pricey media market, even over a short time.
“This is one I think both parties are going to spend a lot of money on,” Kondik said.
The story probably won’t end there for either candidate. Shortly after the winner is sworn in, he or she might have to push the reset button on his or her campaign, albeit without much of a primary contest.
“That, in itself, would be a huge advantage to the special election victor,” Paulson said.
Even though the special election winner would run in the regular election with only a few months in office, that person will still have the benefits of incumbency, including party money and political consultants.
“They will be, in effect, a member of Congress [for] a little less than a year,” Bascom said. “They would still have the incumbent advantage. Once you are a member there are different advantages that come to you.”