Crist and Jolly battle it out in swing district

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Former governor facing Republican for redrawn congressional seat

BY DARA KAM
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

TALLAHASSEE – Being abandoned by national party leaders may be a benefit for U.S. Rep. David Jolly in the Republican’s effort to hold onto his seat in a closely watched congressional battle.

Charlie Crist thanks supporters, with his wife, Carole, during his concession speech after losing to Rick Scott, in St. Petersburg, on Nov. 4, 2014.(JOE BURBANK/ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS)
Charlie Crist thanks supporters, with his wife, Carole, during his concession speech after losing to Rick Scott, in St. Petersburg, on Nov. 4, 2014.
(JOE BURBANK/ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS)

But shunning the GOP might be as big of a boon for his opponent, former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Democrat who’s staging yet another political comeback in a bid for Congressional District 13.

After failing to unseat Gov. Rick Scott in 2014, Crist initially said he was not interested in the congressional post. But he changed his mind a year later, when a newly redrawn district included his St. Petersburg home.

Major moves
Jolly joined Congress in 2014, after defeating former state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink in a special election for the swing seat, which for years has frustrated Democrats.

He initially ran for U.S. Senate this year but bowed out of the GOP primary in June when incumbent Marco Rubio dropped White House aspirations and decided to seek re-election.

A court-ordered redistricting plan is playing a big role in the race between Jolly and Crist, who was elected governor in 2006 as a Republican but later left the GOP and ultimately became a Democrat.

Pinellas County district
Jolly hopes to maintain his hold on the revamped district, which Democratic President Barack Obama carried by nearly 10.7 percentage points in 2012. The district Jolly was elected to represent backed Obama by less than 1.5 points.

The redrawn district rests solely within Pinellas County, where both men have long ties, and where Crist’s history as a Republican, an independent and a Democrat will without question be less of an Achilles’ heel than it was for him in the statewide race.

Crist, 60, defends criticism of his seemingly perennial candidacy – he’s been a state senator, education commissioner, attorney general, governor, and has run for the U.S. Senate twice – as a manifestation of his “servant’s heart.”

And he deflects accusations of flip-flopping with regard to his political persuasion as proof that he will “put partisanship aside” to represent the constituents in the district, where he’s lived since he was a toddler.

“I’ve done it literally. I’ve thrown it out the door. So with me, they’ll get somebody who can work with Democrats, who can work with Republicans, who can work with independents. Because I’ve been one of them. I know how they feel. I say it and I’m proud of it. I’ve walked in their shoes,” Crist said in a recent telephone interview, temporarily halted so he could plant a kiss on his mother’s cheek after he arrived at his parents’ St. Petersburg home.

Big Dems support
National Democrats, hoping to pick up seats in the U.S. House, have made the district one of their top priorities, dumping at least $2 million into ads backing Crist’s campaign.

National Republicans, meanwhile, have ignored Jolly’s re-election effort, something that’s turned into something of a badge of honor for the congressman.

“Name one Republican or Democrat that’s actually been willing to alienate their party,” Jolly, 43, said in wide-ranging telephone interview. “We’ve been abandoned by the National Republican Congressional Committee. … We’re in this on our own on our side. The national Republicans have walked away from us.”

While the lack of support from the GOP may hurt Jolly’s campaign war chest, the positions that have estranged his fellow Republicans make him a more palatable candidate in the left-leaning district.

The ‘Stop Act’
Jolly alienated his party leaders with a piece of legislation, called the “Stop Act,” which would prohibit members of Congress from directly asking for campaign donations – a move that he argues would be a step to reform campaign financing. He also bucked his GOP colleagues when he suggested that the Senate should give a hearing to Merrick Garland, Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. The GOP-controlled Senate has refused to take up the nomination.

Jolly has called on conservatives to embrace what he calls “climate science” and he supports marriage equality, positions he said he’s held long before he chose to seek another term in Congress.

He acknowledges that besting Crist –  described by even his harshest critics as one of the most-polished retail politicians in modern Florida history – in the new district won’t be easy.

But Jolly, who was an aide to former longtime Republican Congressman C.W. Bill Young, maintains that voters simply can’t trust his opponent.

“Charlie has made the precise political calculus about how he benefits the most at the ballot box,” Jolly, who lives in Indian Shores, said. “Charlie has never built consensus. He’s just nice to people on both sides of the aisle. You’re not bipartisan if you just push for the litmus-test issues of your own side of the aisle but you’re at least friendly to the other side.”

Trump’s role in race
As in other races throughout the nation, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump is playing a role in the District 13 race.

Crist recently urged national Democrats to stop running a television spot that had an image of Jolly beside Trump and portrayed the two Republicans as cohorts, after an editorial in the Tampa Bay Times blasted the ad as misleading.

But Crist hasn’t stopped painting Jolly – who at one point called for Trump to drop out of the race for the White House and has said he will not vote for him – as Trumpish. Crist accuses Jolly of wanting to overturn Roe v. Wade, the seminal court decision that legalized abortion, of lobbying to privatize Social Security (Jolly denies it) and of being far more conservative than he appears.

“(Jolly) speaks and articulates a moderate message, but he votes like Donald Trump. That point needs to be made,” Crist said. “He believes what Donald Trump believes, whether he votes for him or not.”

But Jolly has flipped Democrats’ attempts to connect GOP candidates with Trump.

Agree on one thing
Jolly is linking Crist with Trump, saying his Democratic challenger has had a 20-year relationship with the part-time Palm Beach resident and at one point called Trump “gracious, hospitable and good for Florida.”

“We know the reality is, for many independents and most Democrats, the Donald Trump narrative is toxic, which is why they’ve tried to pin it on me,” Jolly, who said he’s never met Trump, said.

“This is where all politics truly is local. It is not a direct tie for somebody like myself. People understand that there is a distinction between the top of the ticket and the congressional ballot. I just have to continue to remind them. But it is difficult because there are many Republicans who are upset with me for not having endorsed our nominee.”

While the two candidates seek to differentiate themselves in other ways, there is one thing on which they agree: Their hometown county is pronounced PINE-ellas.

That’s the way the folks who’ve lived in the region the longest say it, said Jolly, a fifth-generation Pinellas countian who was born in Dunedin.

And that’s how Crist, whose family relocated to St. Petersburg from Pennsylvania when he was 3, pronounces it, too.

“I admire him for that,” Jolly said.

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