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Republicans vote in special primary in bellwether Florida district

By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - In a race watched as a potential bellwether for this year's mid-term congressional elections, lobbyist David Jolly won a special Republican primary election on Tuesday in a key Florida swing district.

The vote in the state's 13th Congressional District was to fill the vacancy left by the death in October of U.S. Representative Bill Young, a moderate Republican who had held the seat for 42 years. Jolly, a former aide to Young, received 45 percent of the vote in the three-way primary, according to unofficial results from the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections.

Once reliably Republican, the district along Florida's Gulf coast has backed the party's presidential nominee only once since 1988. Former President George W. Bush, a Republican, won 51 percent of the district's votes in 2004, but it went for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Jolly, 41, will face Democrat Alex Sink, the state's former chief financial officer and the 2010 nominee for governor, in a general election on March 11. Libertarian Lucas Overby also will be on the ballot.

Sink, considered the strong front-runner, has raised more than $1 million in campaign contributions, more than all three Republican candidates combined, according to the latest campaign filings.

"It's Sink's to lose," said Susan MacManus, a Tampa-based political scientist at the University of South Florida.

Whichever candidate wins in March will have to run again almost immediately because Young, had he lived, would have faced re-election November 4, when all 435 U.S. House members will be on the ballot for the so-called midterm elections.

The March race is being watched to gauge the possible impact Obamacare may have on the midterms, so named because they come halfway through the four-year term of the U.S. President, McManus said.

"People are looking at it as kind of a bellwether on whether Obamacare is going to hurt a Democrat in the general election," MacManus said.

Sink supports Obamacare and Jolly has said he would support repealing it.

MacManus said the 13th congressional district skews older, whiter and politically transitional, with registered Republicans currently outnumbering Democrats by 37.1 percent to 34.7 percent.

SECOND CHANCE

Some Republicans have been disappointed that none of the party's heavy hitters chose to challenge Sink.

However, should Sink win, another Republican candidate could emerge to take her on in November, MacManus said.

The Republican candidates on Tuesday's ballot were little known outside the district.

Besides Jolly, who stressed his long experience as Young's congressional aide, State Rep. Kathleen Peters portrayed herself as the candidate who best understands her district from her years in elective office.

Mark Bircher, an Iraq war veteran, presented himself as an outsider and the most conservative of the three Republicans.

Just 10 days before voters headed to the polls, any boost the Republicans hoped for from Young's popularity and family man image was lost.

The Tampa Bay Times reported in January about Young's personal life, including details about his first marriage. He quietly left his wife in 1985 to marry his secretary, who was half his age.

The divorce records were sealed, and the first wife remained quiet as a condition of alimony, the Times reported.

Young's potential posthumous impact on the race was further diluted when his second wife, Beverly, endorsed Jolly while one of his sons endorsed Peters in what the Times reported as a public rift between mother and son.

It was another fissure in the fractured local Republican Party as it prepares to face Democrats in the general election in March.

"There wasn't a consensus nominee here," McManus said, "which will put the burden on the Republicans to put Humpty Dumpty back together."

(Editing by Gunna Dickson, Sharon Bernstein and Ken Wills)

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