By JIM TURNER
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
Another political domino fell Friday as Republicans wait to see if U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio will run for re-election.
U.S. Rep. David Jolly, a Pinellas County Republican, announced he will forgo a run for the U.S. Senate and seek to return to Congress in a race that likely will match him up against former Gov. Charlie Crist in November.
Jolly, who went to Congress after winning a 2014 special election, said in a prepared statement that he had “unfinished business” and will run in Democratic-leaning Congressional District 13 in Pinellas County.
“The business of our republic is never finished. Nor am I,” Jolly said. “The issues we face as a country are always evolving and the threats we face as a nation are all too real.”
Jolly’s announcement came after Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera announced this week that he would end his Senate bid if Rubio, a longtime friend, decides to enter the race.
During a failed campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Rubio said he would not seek re-election this year to the Senate. But with candidate qualifying next week, he has weighed the possibility of jumping into the race and has been urged to do so by people including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Jolly and Lopez-Cantera are among five Republicans — the others are Congressman Ron DeSantis and businessmen Carlos Beruff and Todd Wilcox — who have traveled the state in recent months trying to line up support for Rubio’s seat.
In deciding to run for Congress, Jolly likely set up a high-profile contest against Crist, who was elected governor in 2006 as a Republican but in recent years became a Democrat. Congressional District 13 was redrawn during the past year as a result of a long-running legal battle and is more favorable to Democrats than in the past.
Crist, whose St. Petersburg home was drawn into the new district, issued a release Friday in which he said he’d refrain from “name calling” in the style of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. He also alluded to critical comments that Jolly made when Crist entered the race.
“Unlike what my new opponent did when I announced, I’m not going to start name calling like Donald Trump — everyone should do what’s in their heart,” Crist said. “Pinellas needs less Donald Trump and more civility to tackle issues like the rising cost of health care, gun violence, failing schools, and protecting our environment —Â that’s why I’m running, for the people.”
But Friday afternoon Crist was using Jolly’s announcement in a fundraising email.
“We are now being challenged by a well-funded former Washington lobbyist,” Crist said in the request for contributions. “This is a man who has used money and power to try to take away women’s rights, drill off our beaches, and block common sense gun control.”
Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant also indicated the party will attack Jolly’s past work as a lobbyist.
“Jolly’s lack of commitment and principle are exactly what Pinellas County residents would expect from a Washington lobbyist who is only interested in furthering his political career. Florida Democrats look forward to sending David Jolly back to K Street in November,” Tant said in a release.
Jolly, who also worked as general counsel to the late C.W. Bill Young, a longtime congressman from Pinellas County, could face primary challengers. The best-known is retired Marine Corps Reserve Brig. Gen. Mark Bircher.
While Jolly took office after the 2014 special election and easily held the seat during the 2014 general election, the redistricting process could make this year’s race more of an uphill battle.
President Barack Obama, for example, carried the revamped District 13, by almost 10.7 percentage points in the 2012 election.
The Saint Leo University Polling Institute said “Jolly appears to be making the smart move,” as it released poll results Friday that continued showing the current field of Republican Senate candidates has struggled to win support from party voters. And everyone’s numbers dip when Rubio is put into the mix, according to the institute’s poll, which has the senator receiving 52 percent of the GOP vote against the field.
But Democrats were quick to point to a Tampa Bay Times report last October in which Jolly was quoted as saying he wanted to continue to serve in Congress but that a Florida Supreme Court ruling on redistricting had turned his old district into one “that virtually every person in the political sphere will tell you no Republican can win.”
Jolly acknowledged in the statement Friday that the new congressional district lines were part of his reasoning to run for U.S. Senate. He added, however, that things have changed.
“But the more I traveled our remarkable state, the more dedicated I became to the opportunity before me, the opportunity to continue to do my day job,” Jolly said. “I wasn’t willing to miss votes, so I didn’t. I wasn’t willing to skip out on committee hearings and intelligence briefings, so I didn’t. I wasn’t willing to spend my days fundraising, and I wasn’t willing to turn my back on families in need that I had sworn to help. I wasn’t willing to violate the public trust.
“A year later, it’s clear the opportunity to change Washington, to do right by my community, is to simply ask for the opportunity to keep doing my job.”