CLEARWATER, Fla. — In a major victory for Republicans in the battle for control of Congress, David Jolly, a former lobbyist, narrowly won a special election for a House seat Tuesday in a hotly contested swing district, giving the party an expensive triumph in its fight against President Obama’s health care plan.
After months of diligent courting by the three candidates and a $9 million barrage of ads by outside groups, voters in Pinellas County chose Jolly over Alex Sink, a Democrat and his main rival. Jolly won 48.5 percent of the vote and Sink received 46.6 percent. A third candidate, Lucas Overby, a Libertarian, won 4.8 percent.
For Republicans, the victory will serve to bolster their message that the nation disapproves of the Affordable Care Act and Obama’s leadership.
For Democrats, Sink’s loss is a significant blow to morale. A moderate who lost her race for governor in 2010, Sink is well known and ran a well-organized campaign awash in donations and buoyed by millions of dollars of outside spending.
Before the loss, Democrats played down a possible defeat, saying the mostly white Republican-leaning district, packed with many older voters, was going to be a tough challenge for them. One Democratic official called it “daunting territory.”
It is the first time in more than 40 years that the congressional district will be overseen by someone other than Representative C.W. Bill Young, a Republican who died in October, setting off the scramble for the job. But, for some voters, Jolly was the closest thing to Young: For years he served as Young’s general counsel and one of his senior aides.
A tossup until the end, the race was largely commandeered by national political organizations waging a proxy battle over issues like the Affordable Care Act and Social Security. In countless advertisements, Republicans trumpeted Sink’s support of the health care plan and linked her to Obama and Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader. Democrats repeatedly accused Jolly of wanting to privatize Social Security.
Republican and Democratic groups poured record-setting sums into the race, raising its profile and importance.
Outside groups like the US Chamber of Commerce and the House Majority PAC, a Democratic group, spent more than $9 million on mostly negative television ads, robocalls, and mailings devoid of nuance. Taking into account money raised by the candidates, total spending in the race hit $12 million, a staggering amount for a House seat in a special election.
Despite Tuesday’s outcome, political analysts have said that the results of one House special election, regardless of how close, seldom transcend state boundaries.
Sink, who was the pick of the national Democratic Party, raised far more than Jolly, a former lobbyist and senior aide to Young. Jolly faced a January primary and struggled to bring in donations. But outside Republican groups stepped in to level the playing field, spending considerably more in political advertisements than Democrats.