David Jolly’s journey to U.S. Senate candidate

in 2017/Top Headlines by

After Florida CFO Jeff Atwater surprised most political observers in Florida this spring and said he would not run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Marco Rubio next year, people began calling David Jolly, inquiring whether he might run for the seat.

“I would be happy to see the field develop in a way that there was a candidate that I knew I could fully support,” the CD 13 Congressman told this reporter in May. “Where the field is today, I don’t see that, and so I’m just being patient, waiting to see who else considers getting in.” At the time, Jacksonville Congressman Ron DeSantis was already in the contest, and rumors were strong that Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera would enter as well, which he did last week (retired CIA contractor Todd Wilcox fills out the current field).

While it may be safe to assume that Jolly still isn’t blown away by the field, any hesitation about leaving his congressional seat that he worked so hard to get last year became a moot point two weeks ago. That’s when the Florida Supreme Court ruled that among the eight districts that the Legislature needs to redraw because they were gerrymandered unconstitutionally was his own seat in Pinellas County.

The biggest question in his primary contest might be: which Jolly shows up to run? The man who, having to prove his true-blue conservative bona fides in the Republican primary for the CD13 seat in January of 2014, ran as a hard-right candidate? Or the man who has since taking office, has proven to be considered an old-fashioned classic moderate, befitting the mood of his Pinellas County constituents.

If Jolly gets traction, you can bet that CLC and DeSantis will accuse him of being too squishy for Republican tastes. It will be fascinating to see how he responds to the challenge.

Jolly is a Pinellas native who received his Bachelor of Arts in History from Emory University and later received his law degree from George Mason University.A confessed political junkie as a youth, he immediate traveled to Washington D.C. after graduating from college. Shortly afterwards, he began working for Congressman C.W. Bill Young, where the two became close over the years.

“I think Bill Young almost looked at David Jolly as another one of his children,” former USFSP political scientist Darryl Paulson, who knew Young well.

“Without question we were family,” Jolly said to Creative Loafing while he was running in the GOP primary to succeed Young in late 2013. He called Young as both a father figure and professional mentor, starting from the time he began working for him in June of 1995 in a variety of roles, including district director.

Jolly left his mentor in 2007 to become a D.C. based lobbyist with Van Scoyoc Associates. In 2011, he opened his own shop, Three Bridges Advisors in 2011, where he remained until he became a candidate for Congress in late 2013.

The GOP race for CD 13 was no given for Jolly, since he didn’t exactly have huge name recognition in the district. And he also was running against Senator Jack Latvala, who blasted him as being an out-of-town lobbyist, who had “never done anything in our community.” He did, however, have the endorsement of Young’s wife, Beverly, an important endorsement at the time (the two now have an estranged relationship).

But Jolly proved his mettle in the primary, defeating state representative Kathleen Peters and retired Marine Brigadier General Mark Bircher, a first-time candidate, by getting 44 percent of the vote. Peters finished with 31 percent, and Bircher was at 24 percent.

Then he took on former CFO Alex Sink, handpicked by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to run for the seat. The fact that Sink had never lived in the district was an inconvenient truth for the Democrats, and Jolly consistently used her lack of roots as a cudgel against the Democrat.

In one of the most expensive congressional elections ever (including third-party groups, over $12 million was expended on it), Jolly defeated Sink, 48.4 – 46.6 percent in March of 2014.

Most political reporters thought that it would be another donnybrook in the fall, but a funny thing happened on the way to that cliffhanger – the Democrats failed to find a candidate to run against Jolly.  That left the now-incumbent skate to a stunningly easy reelection, with only Libertarian Lucas Overby on the ballot.

Since then, he’s been an energetic representative, serving on the House Appropriations and Veterans’ Affairs’ Committees, among others.

But he will not leave a legacy as a congressman from Pinellas County as his mentor and predecessor did. Young represented most of Pinellas County for an amazing 43 years. It will have been just 2.5 years when Jolly’s term ends in November of 2016.

However, Young was never a U.S. Senator – something that Jolly is now aspiring to.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.