Florida House race early test of fall campaign strategy for both parties

The Associated Press

FILE This Nov. 23, 2013 file photo shows Florida Democratic Congressional candidate, Alex Sink, center, speaking at her campaign office in Clearwater, Fla. The special election in this stretch of coastal beach towns and retirement communities was expected to be a referendum on President Barack Obama’s health care law. Instead, in the waning days of the spirited campaign to replace the late Rep. Bill Young, another issue has roared to the forefront. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius, File)

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By MICHAEL J. MISHAK, Associated Press

CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) — Voters in this stretch of beach towns and retirement communities provide the first 2014 campaign test of whether Democrats can counter GOP attacks on the president's health care overhaul by accusing Republicans of threatening popular benefit programs for the elderly.

Democrat Alex Sink and her allies in the spirited race to replace the late Rep. Bill Young in the U.S. House have spent millions of dollars on TV ads ahead of Tuesday's special election painting Republican David Jolly as an extremist who wants to privatize Social Security and gut Medicare.

Jolly has responded with a TV spot featuring his elderly mother and aunt, in which he says "protecting their Social Security means everything to me."

Jolly argues that it is Sink who would undermine Medicare because of Democratic-passed cuts to the program under President Barack Obama's health care law.

The suburban St. Petersburg district is considered a proving ground for each party's political messages and a possible bellwether for the midterm elections. Officials in both parties have said in recent days that private polls show the race to be close. Each has made late appeals for campaign cash.

Former President Bill 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 behalf of her. More than a third of Jolly's campaign contributions came from members of Congress.

Meanwhile, Republican Rep. Paul Ryan joined Jolly on a conference call with voters, while Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul recorded a phone message for the GOP nominee aimed at supporters of Libertarian candidate Lucas Overby.

While Republicans held the congressional seat for four decades until Young's death last year, the district's voters favored Obama in the past two presidential elections. In all, the candidates, their party committees and several outside groups have collectively spent almost $10 million blanketing the airwaves with largely negative ads focused on health care costs and Social Security.

Part of the reason is the large percentage of seniors in this district, which is 37 percent Republican, 35 percent Democrat and 24 percent independent. More than one in four registered voters is older than 65, a population that could make up more than half of those who cast ballots.

But in an effort to deflect Republican attacks on the health care law and rollout problems, Democrats also plan to prominently feature proposed Republican curbs on Social Security and Medicare in competitive races across the country.

"Those issues are paramount," said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, who chairs the House Democrats' campaign operation. "Having Republicans say that they want to cut Medicare but continue to fund massive subsidies to big oil companies ... that will be a defining theme."

Republicans answer by highlighting how some Medicare payment rates were cut by Democrats to help pay for the health overhaul. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has spent $1.2 million on ads arguing Sink is "still pushing Obamacare," the 2010 law that it calls "a disaster for families and seniors." Another spot says Sink supports Obamacare "even though it means higher costs and lost benefits," citing reductions to Medicare Advantage, which lets seniors enroll in Medicare through private insurance plans.

Jolly has put up ads promising spending cuts, balanced budgets and replacing the health care law.

Sink has outspent Jolly by more than 3 to 1 on television advertising, though outside groups aligned with the GOP have helped narrow the overall Democratic advantage.