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Jolly seeking Rubio's Senate seat; Crist eyes House

Tribune staff
Published: July 20, 2015 Updated: July 21, 2015 at 06:57 AM
Congressman David Jolly spoke at Johns Pass Boardwalk, Wednesday, 4/8/15, about the problems of illegal fishing in the area. LANCE ROTHSTEIN / STAFF

TAMPA — The seismic upheaval of Florida’s political landscape in the wake of a state Supreme Court ruling on redistricting centers on the Tampa Bay area now with two of the region’s most prominent political figures signaling major shifts in their careers.

U.S Rep. David Jolly, the Indian Shores Republican, announced Monday he will give up his 13th Congressional District seat to run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by presidential candidate Marco Rubio.

Just hours later, former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist declared on  Twitter that he will run for Jolly’s seat if, as expected, the redrawn district encompasses his St. Petersburg home.

Jolly’s move to run for the U.S. Senate comes less than 18 months after being elected to Congress but was widely expected following the court’s ruling that state lawmakers must redraw eight congressional districts including Jolly’s 13th. That will likely result in a heavily Democratic seat, leaving Jolly with an uphill task to win re-election in 2016.

Jolly acknowledged that was a factor but said his decision to run for Senate was based more on the chance to run for a vacant Senate seat. His interest heightened after Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater earlier this year indicated he would not run.

Jolly said his victory in a congressional district that twice voted for President Barack Obama shows he can be successful in a statewide race.

“The state of Florida is just as blended as District 13,” he said. “I’ve demonstrated a conservative can serve a diverse community and deliver results.”

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Jolly’s entry into the race sets up a Republican primary clash with fellow congressman Ron DeSantis, R-Ponte Vedra Beach, and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera. U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Chumuckla, is expected to run, too, and former Attorney General Bill McCollum is considering entering the race.

“It’s shaking up to be a large field of Republican candidates, therefore Jolly’s challenge will be to break out of the pack to raise money and get his name recognition up around the state,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida.

On the Democratic side, U.S. representatives Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, and Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, are among the candidates already filed to run.

Born in Dunedin, Jolly studied law at George Mason University in Virginia. His introduction to politics came as an intern working with U.S. Rep. Dan Miller of Sarasota. He then secured a position as a staffer for C.W. Bill Young, the longtime congressman for Pinellas who quickly became a mentor to Jolly during a 12 year stint in Young’s office.

Later, Jolly worked for Van Scoyoc Associates, a Washington lobbying firm, and founded Three Bridges Law, Three Bridges Consulting and Lobbying, and 1924 Communications.

Jolly, 42, was something of an underdog when he took on Democrat Alex Sink in a special election in March 2014, called after the death of Young. He narrowly beat Sink and then easily won re-election in the general election the same year, defeating Libertarian Lucas Overby after the Democrats failed to field a candidate.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, he has served on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, as well as the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee and Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee of the full Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

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A fiscal conservative, Jolly said he has consistently voted in keeping with his principles of fiscal responsibility, even when that meant voting out of lockstep with other Republicans. He was one of only three House Republicans who voted against a bill to repeal the estate or so-called death tax. Jolly said the bill would increase the national debt.

“There are votes I’ve taken that I know that can be used and manipulated in a political environment,” he said. “We are on a growth scale of our national debt that I believe will undermine our economy and our national security.”

His libertarian belief that government should not legislate how individuals live made him one of the few Republicans to publicly support same-sex marriage, even though he says he believes in the Biblical definition of marriage as one man and one woman.

Those stances will likely be grist for primary opponents to paint him as too liberal.

Jolly has received an F grade from Conservative Review, a group that grades members of Congress on their voting record. Just hours after Jolly announced his run, the Senate Conservatives Fund, a tea party aligned group, issued a release blasting Jolly’s conservative credentials.

“Congressman David Jolly has the second most liberal record of any Republican in the entire Florida congressional delegation,” group President Ken Cuccinelli said in a news release.

The redrawing of Jolly’s congressional district as ordered by the court already has a number of local Democrats giving serious consideration to running for the seat.

In its order July 9, the court told the Legislature to redraw eight Florida congressional districts, noting specifically that District 14 should not cross Tampa Bay as it does now.

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Democrats make up 62 percent of registered voters in the Pinellas part of that district. Redrawing them into Jolly’s district could turn a swing seat into a safe Democratic one.

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, State Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg and former Tampa City Councilwoman Mary Mulhern are among those who said they may join Eric Lynn, a former adviser to three secretaries of defense, who is running for the seat.

But that may change if a political heavyweight like Crist enters the race.

Although he lost the 2014 gubernatorial election to Gov. Rick Scott, Crist handily beat Scott in Pinellas County, notching 52 percent of the vote compared to Scott’s 41 percent.

With his name recognition, hometown status and fundraising prowess, Crist would be a strong favorite for the seat, said Jewett, the UCF political science professor.

Still, his defection from the Republican Party and his decision to leave the governor’s mansion to run for the U.S Senate against Rubio in 2010 leaves him vulnerable to accusations of opportunism, Jewett said.

“Part of the baggage he has to carry around is he can be tagged as a career politician who is just trying to win another office,” Jewett said. “If there is a Democratic primary, you can bet that will be one of the attacks on him.”

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