Democratic loss in Florida special election: omen for November? (+video)

Republican David Jolly won Tuesday's special election for a US House seat. The Florida race was essentially a referendum on Obamacare, and its outcome signals that Democrats don't yet have a strong answer to GOP criticism.

By , Staff writer

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    Republican David Jolly heads to the stage to thank his supporters Tuesday, March 11, 2014, at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort, in Clearwater Beach, Fla. Jolly edged Democrat Alex Sink in a special election for a US House seat that had been held by the late Rep. Bill Young.
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In the Democratic playbook, Alex Sink was going to show her party how to overcome public unhappiness with Obamacare – and its author, President Obama – by winning a tossup congressional district in the biggest battleground state, Florida.

That didn’t happen. Ms. Sink, initially the better-known and better-funded candidate, lost to first-time candidate David Jolly (R), a Washington lobbyist and former aide to the late Rep. Bill Young (R), whose St. Petersburg-centered seat he will now occupy.

Mr. Jolly didn’t win by much: 48.5 percent to Sink’s 46.6 percent, with Libertarian candidate Lucas Overby taking 4.8 percent. But a win is a win, and Democrats are left scrambling for a Plan B as they head into a challenging midterm election season. Retaking control of the House now looks even more unlikely; holding onto the Senate remains the Democrats’ primary imperative.

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“Dems should not try to spin this loss,” tweeted Democratic strategist Paul Begala. “We have to redouble our efforts for 2014. Too much at stake. #noexcuses.”

The question is how the Democrats can retool. The race for Florida’s 13th Congressional District was effectively a referendum on the Affordable Care Act, and it’s hard to see public opinion on the law changing dramatically between now and November. Jolly’s core message was “repeal and replace Obamacare.” Sink’s response was “fix it, don’t repeal it” – a message that Democrats hoped would be the model for all their candidates in competitive races this fall.

Sink also made defending Social Security and Medicare a top argument, in a district with a large senior population. When Jolly was asked during a debate if privatization should be part of the answer to Social Security’s long-term problems, he put out a moderate Republican position: "I think for the youngest generation, it is appropriate that we consider all options … but importantly, we have to maintain the safety net."

“This was a must-win for Democrats in a winnable swing district, and they blew it,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “Sink did not provide a blueprint for survival for skittish Democrats.”

Aside from the Obamacare focus, Jolly also won because Republicans were better able to turn out their base voters – another warning sign for Democrats this fall, when turning out minority, young, and single-women voters will be crucial.

“But Republicans would be unwise to rest on their laurels, because this is the outcome they should have expected,” says Mr. O’Connell. “If Republicans want to maximize their potential electoral gains in 2014, they are going to have to expand their message to include more than just opposition to Obamacare. Republicans are still lacking an optimistic, forward-looking message.”

In her post-election statement, Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz noted that Republicans have “comfortably held” the 13th district for nearly 60 years. “Tonight, Republicans fell short of their normal margin in this district,” she said.

One Republican alone held the seat for 40 years – Congressman Young, whose death in October triggered the special election. Not only was Young a fixture in his Pinellas County district, he was a beloved master of delivering money to hometown projects. Jolly, who had to overcome the negative label of “Washington lobbyist,” campaigned as a former aide to Young. But Congress’s move away from earmarks means he won’t be able to endear himself to his constituents in the same way.

Another element that may have hurt Sink was the fact that she lived in a neighboring district, and moved into Florida-13 to run for the seat, leading to charges of “carpetbagger.”

The race became a high-priced affair, with money flooding in from around the country, as well as from outside groups and national party committees of both parties. All told, nearly $12 million poured in, according to the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, a huge sum for one congressional race. Phone calls, TV ads, e-mails, and fliers bombarded voters, who by the end were fed up.

“I’ve got very good news tonight: no more commercials,” Jolly said in his victory speech. He struck a conciliatory tone, declining to mention Obamacare.

“This race is not about defending a broken agenda in Washington or advancing a broken agenda in Washington,” he said. “This race is about serving the people in our own community. Let’s dispense with the rancor and vitriol of the last five months.”

Jolly must run again in November to keep the seat come January. Whether Sink will try again is unclear. She is not a scintillating candidate (though neither is Jolly), and going up against an incumbent would be more difficult than competing for an open seat.

Sink entered the race better known, having served as Florida’s chief financial officer, an elective office, from 2007 to 2011. In 2010, she ran for governor and barely lost to now-Gov. Rick Scott (R). During that race, she won Florida-13. And Obama won the district in both of his presidential campaigns.

So Sink’s narrow loss on Tuesday was especially heart-breaking to Democrats, who hoped she could show her party the way to stave off disaster in November. Instead, it’s back to the drawing board.

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