Why this week was 'screaming siren' for Democrats. Obamacare effect?

A Florida special election this week was touted as a referendum on Obamacare. The Democrat lost. That was only one development that concerns Democrats trying to hold the Senate.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Republican Rep. David Jolly of Florida (r.) poses during a ceremonial swearing-in with House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio (l.) on Capitol Hill in Washington Thursday. Earlier this week, Mr. Jolly won a special election.

Democrats have turned on the "screaming siren" this week as they grow increasingly worried that this year's midterm elections could be a replay of the 2010 Republican sweep.

Several factors have played into the Democratic skittishness, including President Obama's persistently low approval ratings and the emergence of two viable Republican Senate candidates in states Democrats had hoped to hold fairly easily this fall.

But the volume on the doomsday chatter that went up noticeably with the victory of Republican Richard Jolly over Democrat Alex Sink in the special election for Florida's 13th Congressional District this Tuesday. The election to replace the late Rep. Bill Young was cast as a referendum over Obamacare, and the Democrat lost even when polls indicated she was favored to win.

So is the Republican victory in Florida evidence that Americans will flood voting booths in November to punish Democrats for Obamacare? Yes and no.

Tuesday's vote was not a referendum on Obamacare, really. It was a test to see who would actually come out and vote in an election about Obamacare.

The Republican won because, proportionally, more conservative voters showed up than in past elections there. Why? With no exit polling, we don't know for sure. 

It could be that many Republicans remain boiling mad about Obamacare and continue to use the ballot box as a place to let off steam, creating an "enthusiasm gap" with Democrats. Or it could be that special elections simply draw fewer voters, and this played into Republicans' hands. In 2008 and 2012, Obama won Florida's 13th district by bringing out a greater share of young voters and minorities, who trend Democratic. On Tuesday, those voters apparently stayed home.

Either way, Democrats have a problem to solve before November.

“We have a turnout issue,” former Obama adviser David Plouffe told Bloomberg Television. “This is a screaming siren that the same problems that afflicted us” in 2010 when Democrats lost control of the House “could face us again.”

Elections like the one this week are how the US House of Representatives ends up with Republicans willing to vote to repeal Obamacare more than 40 times, even though there is no chance such a bill will ever be passed by the Democratically-held Senate or signed by Mr. Obama. They believe their opposition to Obamacare is what got them elected.

The fact is, a majority of Americans (51 percent) agree with the Democratic position that Obamacare should be retained with “small modifications,” according to a Bloomberg poll. That thin majority, combined with the 13 percent of respondents who want no changes to the law, should give Democrats a strong hand on Obamacare.

But those voters have to turn out. "If we'd had better turnout [in Florida], we would have won. It's that simple," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D) of Massachusetts, according to Reuters. "We need to think about how to energize our base."

Ed Kilgore of "The Democratic Strategist" blog found a silver lining: Mr. Jolly won by only 3,500 votes. Turnout is generally even worse in special elections than in midterms. So if turnout ticks up even fractionally in November, as is possible, that alone could be decisive.

"Senate Democrats are reportedly making a reduction in 'midterm falloff' their major collective task going into the general election," he writes. "That's a very good thing, and as the narrow margin of GOP victory in FL-13 indicates, not at all a hopeless task."

But if Democrats cannot find a way to increase turnout in November, Democratic control of the Senate could be at risk. With a net gain of six seats, Republicans would retake the Senate. It's a tall task, but not impossible, and this week gave Republicans more hope. 

Democrats are already facing tough elections in six red states: South Dakota and West Virginia (where Democratic senators are retiring) and Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina (red states where Democratic incumbents face tough challenges). But they all have to fall perfectly – with Democrats taking nothing back in other states – for Republicans to become the majority party in the Senate. 

This week, however, former Sen. Scott Brown (R) of Massachusetts, who has a home in New Hampshire, signaled that he'll challenge Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) of New Hampshire this fall. That follows the news that US Rep. Cory Gardner (R) of Colorado will run against Sen. Mark Udall (D) of Colorado.

That puts two more seats in play. Even if neither Republican wins, their entry into the races will force Democrats to spend more money defending those states – which could mean less money to spend in the six red-state races.

What worries some Democrats most of all, though, is Obama's tepid approval ratings. "Since the post-World War II era, that measurement has been one of the most accurate predictors of midterm results, and any number below 50 means trouble for the party that holds the White House," reports The New York Times.

Currently, Obama's approval rating sits at about 43 percent, according to the RealClearPolitics average of major polls.

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