Republican David Jolly defeated Democrat Alex Sink on Tuesday in a Tampa-area House district where President Barack Obama's health care overhaul got its first test ahead of November's midterm elections.
With almost 100 percent of the vote counted, Jolly had 48.5 percent of the vote to Sink's 46.7 percent. Libertarian Lucas Overby had 4.8 percent.
Sink conceded shortly before 8 p.m. in the race to replace the late congressman Bill Young, who died last year.
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."
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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.
Sink is a former state chief financial officer and was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2010, when she narrowly lost to Republican Rick Scott.
Jolly's election night headquarters erupted into loud cheers as it became clear he was the winner. Sink's party was subdued.
While Republicans held the congressional seat for more than four decades until Young's death in October, the district's voters favored Obama in the 2008 and 2012 elections. The district is 37 percent Republican, 35 percent Democrat and 24 percent independent.
Democrats and Republicans spent millions of dollars on the contest as they auditioned national strategies for the rest of the year.
Sink outspent Jolly by more than 3 to 1 on television advertising, though outside groups aligned with the GOP helped narrow the overall Democratic advantage.
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.
As Jolly and Sink shook hands around the district Tuesday, steady streams of people filed into retirement communities, churches and libraries to cast ballots. As of Monday, 27 percent of registered voters had cast ballots through absentee or early voting, with Election Day turnout increasing throughout the afternoon.
At one retirement community in Pinellas Park, many retirees expressed disgust at the amount of money spent on the race.
"Well, I think way too much money has been spent on it that could have been spent to help people that are in dire need," said Gracie Meyer. "I would hope that someday they put a limit on how much any candidate can spend to get elected or re-elected. I heard last night that 12 million dollars has been spent on this election. And this is all to do over in November. I just think it's a travesty of justice that we allow this much money to be spent on an election."
Voter Fred Olson wouldn't say who he voted for, but asserted that he was "disturbed" by the amount of money spent and the misleading ads.
"It's very difficult to vote for candidates who condone that type of campaigning, even though you might like them as individuals, the campaigning is outrageous," he said, adding that he considered voting for Overby as a protest vote against the two major parties. "It puts me to the test to vote for either of the major candidates."
The battle for Florida's 13th District seat is 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 makes the race in Florida a pricey proving ground for both parties, with the candidates the faces of the effort.
While Jolly campaigned on repealing the Affordable Care Act, Sink painted him as an extremist who wants to "take us back" to when people were denied coverage due to existing conditions. She pledged to "to keep what's right and fix what's wrong" in the health care law.
That argument resonated with some voters.
"While I know it's not perfect, it's may be the beginning of where we can provide adequate health care to everyone, not just the wealthy," said Frieda Widera, a 51-year-old Democrat from Largo who backed Sink.
Others compared the botched rollout to the beginnings of popular government programs like Social Security and Medicare.
In an attempt to deflect criticism over the law, Sink and Democrats painted Jolly as a Washington lobbyist who backs efforts to privatize Social Security and gut Medicare. The attack put Jolly on the defensive in recent weeks, and some voters cited concern about GOP cuts to programs for the elderly. More than one in four registered voters in the district is older than 65.
"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."
The relentless barrage of television ads and mailers were on par with a presidential election.
In a sign that the GOP is 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 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.