Republican David Jolly won Tuesday's special election for an open House seat in Florida over Democrat Alex Sink, a former chief financial officer for the state and a 2010 candidate for governor. Jolly, a lobbyist and one-time congressional staffer, is succeeding his former boss, the late Bill Young, a 43-year House veteran and Republican. Young died in October of last year, opening up the St. Petersburg-area 13th district for the first time in decades.
Democrats saw an opportunity not just to pick up a longtime Republican seat but to perhaps slow the momentum the GOP seemed to be gathering ahead of the general election this November. Republicans and conservatives tried, and largely succeeded, to make the race a referendum on Obamacare that would presage more electoral victories later this year.
So what can we take away from Jolly's win? Most important to note is that a special election is just that--special. The particulars of the race, the district, the date, and the candidates can't give us a perfect picture of how elections in other states several months down the road will result.
With that said, there are a few indicators about 2014 from Jolly's victory. First is that despite the longtime Republican representation, the district is almost evenly split. Barack Obama won the district both in 2008 and 2012, and Cook Partisan Voting Index gives it just an R+1 rating. As Dave Weigel demonstrates, Sink won several precincts in the district that Young split in 2012 with Barack Obama, but she also lost several precincts that Obama won. It may not have helped that Sink didn't live in the district until last year.
Moreover, when Sink ran for governor in 2010 against Republican Rick Scott, she actually won Pinellas County, most of which constitutes the 13th district. That year was a good one for Republicans in Florida, and yet Sink won Pinellas by more than 5 points. Four years later, saddled with the unpopularity of Obamacare, she couldn't convince them again.
Nor could Sink and the Democrats convince voters that Jolly was a bad candidate, even as national Republicans fretted in the final days of the campaign that their man had been a disaster. Here's an excerpt from Politico's March 7 report:
Over the past week, a half-dozen Washington Republicans have described Jolly’s campaign against Democrat Alex Sink as a Keystone Cops operation, marked by inept fundraising, top advisers stationed hundreds of miles away from the district in the state capital and the poor optics of a just-divorced, 41-year-old candidate accompanied on the campaign trail by a girlfriend 14 years his junior. The sources would speak only on condition of anonymity.
After the big win, the National Republican Congressional Committee is touting its self-reported improved data operation, but the Jolly campaign was apparently so hopelessly inept that D.C.-area Republicans were already distancing themselves from what could have been an embarrassing loss.
It's more likely that Jolly's victory came not because of a sophisticated voter data operation or a huge swing toward the GOP in the district (he won by fewer than 3,500 votes) but because of two issues: Obamacare's Medicare cuts and Alex Sink's record as CFO in charge of the state's pension fund. Among the residents of the district, 22 percent are above the age of 64, higher than the state's average and among the highest in the nation. The two issues of Obamacare and Sink's record are loosely related, as the TV ads from conservative groups show. First, there's a Chamber of Commerce ad, which points out that the health care law makes "deep cuts to Medicare Advantage." Watch the video below:
Second, consider a pair of ads, the first from American Action Network and the second from American Crossroads, that focus on Sink's time as CFO. Both ads charge that Florida's pension fund lost billions because of mismanaged investment funds. Watch them below:
The effect of the ads were to cast Sink, who wasn't connected to Obamacare by a vote, as a politician who couldn't be trusted with the financial security of Floridians, particularly Florida seniors. Obamacare's cuts to Medicare Advantage are a major reason why seniors nationwide have the highest disapproval of the law.
The environment was ripe for a Democratic win. Republicans had a weak candidate, and an early poll showed Sink with a double-digit lead over Jolly. It's true pro-Jolly groups spent $4.9 million as opposed to the $3.7 million spent by pro-Sink groups, but the difference may have been in the message, not the money. In a year when Democrats are attempting to change the subject from Obamacare to local or personal issues that hurt their opponents, conservatives in Florida deftly combined both strategies. And, at least in Tuesday's special election, it worked.