Why Florida's special election really does matter

Obamacare is on trial, as Alex Sink (D) and David Jolly (R) vie to represent Florida's 13th Congressional District, one of the few tossup seats in the country. Both national parties can learn lessons from the outcome.

Brian Blanco/Reuters/File
Republican David Jolly and Democrat Alex Sink chat on stage during a candidate forum in Clearwater, Fla., last month. The two are in a special election to be held Tuesday to elect a member of the United States House of Representatives.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Most special elections for a single seat in the 435-seat House of Representatives are overhyped. Not so Tuesday’s vote to fill the vacancy in Florida-13 – a tossup district in the swingiest region of the nation’s biggest battleground state.

Both national parties have been closely involved in the race, which is neck-and-neck, and stand to learn lessons from the outcome.   

Obamacare is effectively on the ballot. And if Democrat Alex Sink wins, her message – that the Affordable Care Act is worth defending but needs to be fixed – could show Democrats that Obamacare (and by extension, President Obama) isn’t necessarily a dead-weight anchor around their necks in the November midterms. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has also made the “defend it but fix it” argument about the ACA, could apply the same lesson if she runs for president in 2016.

For Republicans, a victory by nominee David Jolly would hold the seat for the GOP and show the party that its march to a bigger House majority and possible takeover of the Senate is on track. But if Mr. Jolly loses his bid to replace his long-serving former boss, the late Rep. Bill Young, who died in October, that could force Republicans to retool their message for the fall.

Even if Jolly ekes out a win, “Republicans are learning that they have to get beyond their slam-Obamacare-all-the-time strategy,” says Ford O’Connell, chairman of the CivicForumPAC. “They have to convince voters they have a plan.”

In fact, a victory by Jolly could lessen the urgency around fashioning a proactive message. So if he loses, the silver lining could be that it forces the party to develop a positive agenda, which boosts the GOP cause in November.

The Democrats need the victory more than the Republicans, analysts say, to show donors that Mr. Obama’s unpopularity and the ACA haven’t thrown the party completely off track. Democrats face a very steep climb to make the net gain of 17 seats to retake the House, but if they’re going to have a shot – and keep majority control of the Senate – they need donors to pony up the resources.  

The other key for Ms. Sink is women, who constitute 54 percent of the district’s electorate.

“If she wins, I think it will be because of the women’s vote,” says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. She predicts Sink will win by a hair, “but anything can happen.”

A poll taken March 7-9 by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling showed Sink ahead, 48 percent to 45 percent, with Libertarian candidate Lucas Overby getting 6 percent. Among those who voted early, Sink led 52 percent to 45 percent.

Obama won the district narrowly in both of his presidential campaigns, even as the Republican Congressman Young was easily winning reelection.

Sink started the race with some advantages. She faced no primary challenger, and thus could husband her resources for the general election. Jolly, by contrast, had to spend money winning a contested primary. Sink also came in with wide name recognition, having served as Florida’s chief financial officer and then the Democratic nominee for governor in 2010. She won Florida-13 in her gubernatorial race, which she lost to now-Gov. Rick Scott (R).

On the down side, Sink isn’t a strong stump speaker and has made some awkward comments. She called a recent report by the Congressional Budget Office saying that the ACA would reduce the labor force “an exciting prospect.” She also had to explain a recent statement on immigration reform, which she called critical for Florida, because it would keep employers from hiring undocumented workers to clean hotel rooms and do landscaping. 

Sink has also had to fight charges she’s a carpetbagger. She owns a home outside the district, in nearby Hillsborough County, and moved into Pinellas County, in the district, to run for the seat.

But Jolly, too, has fought “outsider” charges of his own. Though born and raised in the district, he worked as a lobbyist in Washington after leaving Young’s office in 2007. “Washington lobbyist” isn’t the most felicitous label for a first-time candidate.

Press headlines such as “National GOP turns on Florida candidate” also haven’t helped. The Politico article describes unhappy Washington Republicans calling Jolly’s campaign a “Keystone Cops operation, marked by inept fundraising, top advisers stationed hundreds of miles away … and the poor optics of a just-divorced, 41-year-old candidate accompanied on the campaign trail by a girlfriend 14 years his junior.”

Jolly distanced himself from an ad paid for by the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) that took issue with Sink’s use of a state plane to get to a vacation spot, back when she was Florida’s chief financial officer. NRCC officials were not pleased by Jolly’s comments to a Tampa Bay Times reporter.

In the end, the race will come down to turnout. Florida-13 skews older, and older voters tend to turn out. Democrats reportedly have a better turnout operation. But all the mud-slinging could discourage participation.  

“The thing that’s alienating people is the negativity of the ads,” says Ms. MacManus. 

Whoever wins Tuesday’s race will serve only for the remainder of this Congress, and must run again in November to keep the seat. 

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