CLEARWATER BEACH, Florida (AP) — A Republican won a special election in a Florida Congressional district where President Barack Obama's health care overhaul got its first test ahead of November's midterm elections and Democrats and Republicans spent millions of dollars auditioning national strategies for the rest of the year.
With almost all votes counted Tuesday night, David Jolly had 48.5 percent of the vote to Democrat Alex Sink's 46.7 percent. A third candidate, Libertarian Lucas Overby, had 4.8 percent. The Tampa-area election was to replace 42-year Republican Rep. CW Bill Young, who died in October of cancer.
The implications of the dueling messages for the midterm elections inspired both parties to call in star advocates like President Bill Clinton and former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, in addition to blanketing the district with ads, calls and mailings. More than $11 million has been spent on the race, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit group that tracks government information.
The battle for Florida's 13th District seat was a prequel of sorts to the national fight this year over who controls Congress in the last two years of Obama's final presidential term. The House is expected to remain under Republican control. But in the Senate, Republicans are hoping to leverage Obama's unpopularity and his health care law's wobbly start to gain the six seats required to control the 100-member chamber.
The 3-year-old health care law, Obama's signature domestic policy achievement, aims to extend coverage for uninsured Americans, in part by offering government-subsidized private plans. It also prohibits insurers from turning away people with health problems.
Republicans oppose the initiative, especially a requirement that nearly all Americans have health coverage or risk fines.
Jolly, a former Young aide backed by Republicans and outside groups, campaigned on repealing the health care law, saying in one ad that Sink would undermine Medicare — the federal government health care program for the elderly — because of Democratic-passed cuts to programs under the new health law.
The message is a rallying cry for Republican voters.
"No more big government. We've got to stop," said Irene Wilcox, a 78-year-old retired waitress and Republican from Largo who voted for Jolly.
Meanwhile, Sink, Florida's former chief financial officer and the Democratic nominee for governor in 2010, painted Jolly as an extremist who wants to "take us back" to when people were denied health coverage due to existing conditions. She pledged to "to keep what's right and fix what's wrong" in the health care law.
Both major political parties made a last-minute drive for voters over the last week.
Clinton recorded a phone call last week seeking local volunteers to help with Sink's campaign, and a half dozen House Democrats emailed fundraising appeals to their own supporters on her behalf. More than a third of Jolly's campaign contributions came from members of Congress.
Meanwhile, Ryan joined Jolly on a conference call with voters.