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Will conservatives sway the District 13 Republican primary?

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Published:   |   Updated: November 22, 2013 at 07:48 AM

If conventional wisdom applied here, Kathleen Peters and David Jolly would cast themselves in the most conservative light possible, disavowing gay marriage and embracing gun rights while portraying the other as centrist — even liberal — as they vied for the Republican nomination in the District 13 congressional race .

But that approach might not work so well with voters used to the more pragmatic approach of C.W. ”Bill” Young, who represented the district for 42 years until his death last month.

In this district, which includes most of Pinellas County from Dunedin south, excluding downtown and South St. Petersburg, the tea party’s 2011 ruckus over fluoride left a bad enough taste with voters that they ousted two of the incumbent Republicans that voted to remove it from the water supply.

It’s a district where Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike toured beaches and hotels in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill and openly criticized offshore oil drilling. It’s also a district where most of the county’s Republican county commissioners support revamping public transit and possibly building a light rail system linking Clearwater and St. Petersburg.

When people talk of Bill Young, the word “bipartisanship” comes up often.

That may be why the two major Republican candidates who this week qualified for the special election to replace Young — Peters, the state representative and former South Pasadena mayor, and Jolly, a Washington lobbyist and former aide to the longtime congressman — both failed to mention red-meat conservative issues at their campaign kickoffs.

“I don’t think the district is a hotbed of tea party activity,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Washington political blog Rothenberg Report.

At the same time, most mainstream Republicans probably won’t bother to show up for the Jan. 14 primary. The more conservative base likely will. So, while the district, as a whole, may be more moderate, many voters in the January primary probably won’t be.

“Republican primaries inevitably attract conservative voters,” Gonzales said.

Neither Jolly nor Peters have shown themselves to be staunch social conservatives, and doing so now would mean the winner would have to quickly steer back to the center to face Democrat Alex Sink in March. The former state chief financial officer and gubernatorial candidate, who doesn’t face a primary challenger, is likely to be a strong candidate in Pinellas County, even though she lives in Thonotosassa in eastern Hillsborough County. She won the district — however slightly — in her unsuccessful 2010 bid for governor against Rick Scott.

After announcing his candidacy in the District 13 race — and before he knew he’d facea primary challenger — Jolly said he didn’t plan on modifying his message to cater to one group or another.

“I’m running this race as who I am, and that’s going to be the same person in the primary that it is in the general,” he said.

As a lobbyist, Jolly has given thousands of dollars to Republican as well as Democratic candidates, including former Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.

“That probably won’t sit well with Republican voters,” Gonzales said.

To counteract his record, Jolly might have to adopt more conservative messaging leading up to January.

“He may have to come across as maybe more conservative,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball political blog. “The red meat is for the primaries.”

Peters said social issues such as abortion and gun control, which can energize the Republican base, won’t be at the forefront of her campaign in the way they are in other Republican primaries.

“Abortion’s the law of the land, and I don’t go there,” Peters said. “My focus getting the state and country back on track through economic development.”

Both candidates say they’ll focus on pocketbook issues such as flood insurance and taxes.

“I don’t think that their first inclination would be to jump into some kind of social issue war,” Gonzales said.

Democrats have already seized on the prospect that Jolly and Peters may run to the right to lock up the Republican nomination.

“Both David Jolly and Kathleen Peters will have to appeal to the farthest right-wing elements of their party,” David Bergstein of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said in an email sent Monday, the day qualifying for the race began.

“Jolly and Peters will spend the next several months locked in a brutal, intraparty fight that will divide Republicans against each other, drain both candidates of resources, and force Jolly and Peters to align themselves with the same reckless, irresponsible fringe of their party that was responsible for the shutdown of our nation’s government.”

A more likely scenario is that Jolly and Peters will try and portray each other as a political insider, observers say.

That messaging might get confusing, though. Jolly has spent plenty of time on Capitol Hill as a lawyer and lobbyist to a powerful congressman and is supported by Young’s widow, Beverly. Peters has been an elected official for years — first serving as a South Pasadena city commissioner and then as the city’s mayor before going to the state Legislature.

“The insider-outsider message is going to get blurred,” Gonzales said. “Each of them could make the case for being the outsider.”

kbradshaw@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-7999

Twitter: @kbradshawTBO

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