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Special Election Could Reshape Race for Bill Young's Seat

October 20, 2013 - 6:00pm

Republican Congressman Bill Young's death will accelerate the race for one of the more competitive seats in the country, even as it remains unclear when a special election will be held and which candidates will be involved.

Young, who died Friday at the age of 82, had already announced that he would retire when his current term expired, leaving the Pinellas County seat open for the first time in 44 years. That prompted a string of speculation about who might enter a campaign expected to be extremely competitive and extremely costly.

But even as Young's passing put in motion the process for a special election, it dampened talk of it.

Young's potential successors were mostly keeping quiet until after his funeral, scheduled for 1 p.m. Thursday at First Baptist Indian Rocks in Largo. Speakers are expected to include U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the Tampa Bay Times reported.

Representatives for Jessica Ehrlich, a Democrat who challenged Young in 2012 and had already announced she would run next year, and former state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink said neither would speak about politics Monday.

"Representative Youngs lifetime of service to Pinellas County, our state and our country should be recognized and respected," Ehrlich said in a statement issued Sunday.

But the possibility of a quick campaign was already shuffling the potential names in the race. A former Pinellas County sheriff, a former St. Petersburg mayor and Young's son have been mentioned as possible candidates on the GOP side.

The district is attractive to candidates on both sides of the aisle. Young consistently won, but the district also narrowly voted for Sink, a Democrat, in the 2010 gubernatorial election and for President Barack Obama.

Gov. Rick Scott is required by law to call a special election to fill Young's seat, but he doesn't face a deadline on when to do so. Scott could wait to allow the Republican brand to recover after a budget battle with Obama that left the party's numbers badly damaged.

But in either case, the vote will likely take place in a few months, rather than in more than a year.

"I think the short timeline is really going to restrict candidates," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.

The sooner the election, the more important name recognition and the ability to raise money quickly would become. That would seem to favor a candidate like Sink, who does not live in the district but ran two statewide campaigns, capped off by a narrow loss to Scott in one of the closest gubernatorial elections in state history.

Sink has already drawn praise from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is in charge of trying to regain the majority in the House of Representatives next year.

"A candidate like Alex Sink would be very competitive in this district," said DCCC spokesman David Bergstein.

MacManus said there was even some talk that Republicans could forgo a huge investment in the special election and instead make a more concerted effort to capture the seat in 2014.

The president's party often loses seats in the second midterm elections. And a longer campaign aimed at next November could help a candidate build up his or her name identification, MacManus said. But that approach carries its own risks.

"It's a questionable strategy because if people like someone, in six months' time it's probably not likely to change very much," MacManus said.

Either way, she said, a close special election would likely encourage a rematch, while a blowout could discourage someone from taking a second shot at the seat.

"I think margin of victory would say a lot about whether somebody lived to fight another day," MacManus said.

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