CLEARWATER BEACH, Florida (AP) — A Republican won a special election Tuesday 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, David Jolly had 48.5 percent of the vote to Democrat Alex Sink's 46.7 percent. 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.
That made the race in Florida a pricey proving ground for both parties heading into November elections.
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 because of Democratic-passed cuts to programs under "Obamacare."
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.
Others described Sink as a clone of Obama and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, a key argument of Jolly and national Republicans.
"As bad as Bush may have been, he was a saint compared to the guy we have in Washington," said Rich Castellani, a retired treasury agent who supported 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.
Others compared the botched rollout to the beginnings of popular government programs like Social Security and Medicare.
"The Republican Party thinks they are hurting President Obama," said George Nassif, an 82-year-old Republican who voted for Sink. "They are not. They are hurting the people."
In a sign that the Republican Party was concerned about losing votes to the Libertarian candidate, Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul recorded a phone message for Jolly last week aimed at Overby's Libertarian supporters.
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.
While Republicans held the congressional seat for four decades until Young's death last year, the district's voters favored Obama in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. The district is 37 percent Republican, 35 percent Democrat and 24 percent independent.
Sink outspent Jolly by more than 3 to 1 on television advertising, though outside groups aligned with the Republican helped narrow the overall Democratic advantage.