- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 4, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) - In the 2012 general election, more people voted by mail in Pinellas County than in any other Florida county and that could have a major impact on next week’s special election to replace the late Congressman C.W. Bill Young.

According to Florida political watchers, the congressional race will be close between Democrat Alex Sink and Republican David Jolly, and it all could hinge on which side is better at prodding its supporters to mail back their ballots - rather than getting them to the polls.

As of Monday, 53 percent of the registered Democrats who had requested mail-in ballots had returned them, while 52 percent of the Republicans had. A total of 78,605 Republicans requested ballots by mail, while 72,068 Democrats and 43,468 voters registered as independents or to other parties had requested the mailed ballots, according to the Pinellas election supervisor’s office.

“What this race comes down to is how effective the Democrats and Republicans are in chasing their party’s mail-in ballots,” said Dan Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida.

Jolly, speaking after the final campaign debate on Friday, acknowledged the challenge: “There’s a lot of ballots still out there.”

The race is being heavily watched by Washington, D.C., insiders, who see it as a dress rehearsal for this November’s midterm elections nationwide and as a test case for whether the Affordable Care Act - the health care law dubbed “Obamacare” - will be a major issue. Republicans, especially, are road-testing strategy in this race.

Millions of dollars have been spent by both parties. Residents in the district sometimes receive two or three fliers a day from the parties and political action groups, and ads have blanketed the television and radio airwaves. The special election is Tuesday.

As of early February, the National Republican Congressional Committee was spending more than $200,000 on television ads opposing Sink, in addition to three Republican groups plowing $1.2 million into the race. Democrats, meanwhile, have reserved more than $2.5 million in advertising, mostly aimed at criticizing Jolly’s time as a lobbyist.

But whether those costly ads will pay off is anyone’s guess. The district, which supported the Republican Young for more than 40 years until his death last October at 82, is now considered a tossup.

“It is way too early to start making projections about the outcome of this race; there are seven days until Election Day, and Democrats need to win the voting on each and every day,” said Ashley Walker, Sink’s campaign spokeswoman, adding that the team is “taking nothing for granted.”

Voters here backed former Republican President George W. Bush in 2004 before narrowly supporting Democrat Barack Obama twice.

Anthony Brunello, a political science professor at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, said the district - which encompasses most of Pinellas County on Florida’s Gulf Coast with the exception of a slice of downtown St.Petersburg - is working class.

“Pinellas County is interesting because it’s definitely gone very purple,” he said, referring to an equal split between Republican red and Democratic blue. “Especially in national elections. Big parts of it can vote for a Democratic candidate for president on a national level.”

Brunello said that the congressional race between Jolly and Sink could actually be influenced by a third candidate: Lucas Overby, a Libertarian. Overby has been included in all three candidate debates and Brunello and other political experts in the area say that he has impressed younger voters.

Susan McManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, moderated the second debate and 20 of her students were in the audience.

“They were mesmerized by Overby,” she said.

McManus said that the rate of return on mail-in ballots parallels the voter registration by party. She said that the race will be won by the candidate who makes the most of grassroots, get-out-the-vote efforts in the next several days.

“This race will be won in the trenches of personal contacts,” she said.

Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter at https://twitter.com/tamaralush

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