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David Jolly says he intends not to mention Charlie Crist’s name at all in their blockbuster congressional match-up

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Two years ago, special interest money out of Washington made the special congressional election in Florida’s 13th District between David Jolly and Alex Sink one of the most expensive of all time. While it’s unlikely that the spending will exceed the reported $12 million that was spent in 2014, it’s a race that the Democrats will desperately try to win – especially if they believe that they have the ability to win the entire House of Representatives because of the deleterious affects of a Donald Trump candidacy affecting down-ballot races.

Friday afternoon in Clearwater, CD 13 Representative David Jolly confirmed the rumors – he is dropping out of the Florida GOP Senate race to run for re-election against former Governor Charlie Crist.

“I’m asking my community simply for the opportunity to keep doing my job,” Jolly said after a seven-minute preamble to explain the circumstances that led to his decision. “Today I’m announcing that I will seek ree-lection to the US House of Representatives, for Pinellas County.”

Speaking inside an airplane hanger at the Clearwater-St. Petersburg airport, Jolly confirmed that the filing deadline of June 24 compelled him to decide on his political future this week, and he said that he made it in concert with his wife Laura within the past 48 hours.

Rumors that Jolly would drop out of the Senate race accelerated with the concurrent stories that failed presidential candidate Marco Rubio has been having second thoughts about not running for re-election, and could very well enter back into the race. Jolly was the only one of the five GOP candidates who have been running  for the seat to say outright he would drop out if that scenario played out.

Jolly has bemoaned the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling last year that the CD 13 district was one of eight in Florida that were drawn up in violation of the state constitution in 2012, saying that it had been an ideal swing-district, a rarity in American politics these days. He was quoted last October as saying that no Republican could win the seat, begging the question: Why does he think it’s viable now?

The Congressman answered by saying that his comments at the time are still valid, citing the double-digit margins of victory that President Obama enjoyed in 2012 and Crist did while running for governor in 2014. “By entering this race, I believe as a sitting Republican House member, we might have the most challenging race for a Republican in the country, in a very expensive media market, against a very well qualified candidate in Charlie Crist, who has shown that he can win races. So I am not naive with the challenge we are undertaken.”

He went on to say he didn’t know or care what current polls say, but these are the facts: a St. Pete Polls survey conducted recently shows Jolly to be in a straight-up tie with Crist, and reportedly private polls conducted by state Senator Jack Latvala show Jolly actually leading Crist.

Crist supporters were quick to note that Jolly’s narrow, two-percentage point victory over Sink in 2014 occurred when turnout was less than 40 percent, and said in this year’s presidential election the turnout could be as a high as 75 percent. And they noted that in 2014, 40 percent of new voters were Democrats, 37 percent Republicans and 23 percent independents.

However, in March, Republicans superseded Democrats in terms of party registration for the first time in years, and while some Democrats attempted to spin that total as a result of voters signing up to vote for and against Trump, the fact of the matter is that Trump easily won the CD 13 vote, so if there were voters registering as Republicans to vote against Trump, they didn’t appear in very large numbers in the primary in March.

Last fall, the normally amiable Jolly uncharacteristically crashed Crist’s announcement that he was running in CD 13, prompting this reporter to ask Jolly if he has enmity towards the former Republican that could result in an intensely negative campaign this fall?

Jolly said simply he felt he was more qualified than Crist to represent the district, and said that while his opinions about his new opponent have been extensively reported on, he doesn’t intend to reference it at all between now and November, a laudable goal that could be impossible to adhere to depending on the state of the race in October.

Jolly did say that he one asked Crist for a refund from a campaign contribution he made to the former governor when he switched parties (he said Crist ignored the request), and no longer votes early in the voting cycle after having committed to Crist early in his 2006 gubernatorial run against Democrat Jim Davis. But a constant theme throughout the nearly half-hour long press conference was that he wanted to “change the tone in Washington,” and clearly bashing his new opponent would hardly fit into his branding. “Hopefully, you won’t hear me utter another candidate’s name between now and November, you’ll only hear me talk about my record and what I intend to for the county.”

In a brief statement, Crist noted Jolly’s uninvited appearance to his campaign announcement last fall.

“Unlike what my new opponent did when I announced, I’m not going to start name calling like Donald Trump – everyone should do what’s in their heart,” Crist said. “Pinellas needs less Donald Trump and more civility to tackle issues like the rising cost of health care, gun violence, failing schools, and protecting our environment –  that’s why I’m running, for the people.”

While Crist was ready to turn the other cheek, it was another story with the national and Florida Democratic Party.

“David Jolly wanted any excuse to end his Senate campaign that was defined by lackluster support and pathetic attempts to scrub his lobbying career from his public biography,” said DSCC Communications Director Sadie Weiner. “He was ill-prepared to run a statewide race, let alone represent Florida in the U.S. Senate.  We wish the NRCC the best of luck with their former lobbyist candidate who they accused of lying after he brought a secret camera crew into their office.”

“Jolly’s lack of commitment and principle are exactly what Pinellas County residents would expect from a Washington lobbyist who is only interested in furthering his political career,” said  Florida Democratic Party Chair Allison Tant. “Florida Democrats look forward to sending David Jolly back to K Street in November.”

Democrats are already attacking Jolly for his draft proposal this week that would tighten firearm restrictions for potential terrorists, while also requiring the individual who was denied the ability to purchase a gun be entitled to a due process hearing within 30 days before a federal judge. At that time the government must demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that the individual should be on the watch list and prohibit from purchasing a firearm.

Democratic protestors (who were not allowed into the hangar but stood holding signs at a gate outside) held signs called Jolly a hypocrite for opposing similar Democratic proposals to restrict terrorists or suspected terrorists from being able to purchase firearms. “The issue with the terror watch list is an individual never had due process, and that’s the fallibility of the simple proposal of ‘no-fly, no -buy.’ But we can fix that,” Jolly said.

A handful of Pinellas County Republicans were on the scene to show their support, such as Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, who worked with Jolly on Congressman Bill Young’s staff. The Mayor said he wasn’t surprised to see Jolly fairing well in early polls. “He has reached out throughout the district  from day one, and he’s done a good job representing all of us.”

Palm Harbor state Representative Chris Sprowls said the community knows both candidates well. “They’re going to evaluate them, and I think that based on that, they’re going to elect David Jolly back to Congress.”

While Jolly says he won’t criticize Crist, that message apparently isn’t universal with his surrogates. “I think that Pinellas County voters will see the difference between the two,” said Clearwater state Representative Chris Latvala.  “One of them you have a statesman, the other one you have someone who will say and do and belong to every political party they think will advance their own political career.”

Both candidate are considered moderates, a byproduct of Pinellas County politics. Jolly emphasized the moderate nature of his brand of politics, a moderate stance that many felt would ultimately doom him a GOP senate primary race, though he has remained competitive in the polling to date.

“Listen, I bring some very conservative core convictions,” he said, “but I think I’ve demonstrated on areas like equality and non-discrimination and climate science to guns, that if we sit down together, I can advance my conservative convictions while giving voice to others that perhaps are on the other side of the spectrum, and we can reach a consensus solution that’s right for the American people.”

The scenario is now quite different for Crist than when he entered the contest last fall, with his biggest task being to put away then Democratic challenger Eric Lynn. It should be a fascinating race.

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.

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