CLEARWATER BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Republican David Jolly has taken the lead in the Florida congressional race to replace the late Republican Rep. Bill Young.
With polls closed and 97 percent of the votes counted Tuesday evening, Jolly had 48.4 percent of the vote to Democrat Alex Sink's 46.7 percent. Libertarian Lucas Overby had 5 percent.
Jolly is a former aide for Young and a lobbyist. Sink is a former state chief financial officer and was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2010, narrowly losing to Republican Rick Scott.
The toss-up race is seen as an early test of how President Barack Obama's health care overhaul will play in November's midterm elections.
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.
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 heading into November elections.
Jolly, a former Young aide backed by Republicans and outside groups, has 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."
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.
Others described Sink as a clone of Obama and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, a key argument of Jolly and national Republicans.
"As bad as Bush may have been, he was a saint compared to the guy we have in Washington," said Rich Castellani, a retired treasury agent who supported Jolly.
Meanwhile, Sink, Florida's former chief financial officer and the Democratic nominee for governor in 2010, painted Jolly as an extremist who wants to "take us back" to when people were denied coverage due to existing conditions. She has 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 have painted Jolly as a Washington lobbyist who backs efforts to privatize Social Security and gut Medicare. The attack has 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."
Many voters expressed disgust at the amount of money spent on the race -- and the relentless barrage of television ads and mailers that were on par with a presidential election.
"I stopped watching television because the ads were driving me crazy," said William McConnell, a 72-year-old forensic accountant and lifelong Republican. "It was packed with lies on both sides." He cast his ballot for Overby as a protest vote.
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.
While Republicans held the congressional seat for four decades until Young's death last year, the district's voters favored Obama in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. The district is 37 percent Republican, 35 percent Democrat and 24 percent independent.
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.
Associated Press writer Philip Elliot in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow Michael J. Mishak on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mjmishak