Drama-filled Florida race is 2014 bellwether

Lackluster candidates, millions spent, a third-party candidate: Every detail of Tuesday’s special election in Florida’s 13th District makes it unusual, but the bellwether district is still the first indication of the 2014 electoral mood. 

Regardless of outside factors in the critical region, the winning party will try to spin the results of the first midterm test as a harbinger for their party’s messages this fall. 

ADVERTISEMENT
“This is not about [Democrat] Alex Sink and [Republican] David Jolly,” said Mike Fasano, a former Florida GOP state House and Senate member. “This is about what’s happening in Washington and who happens to be more unpopular than the other party.”

Stakes are highest for Democrats, even though they don’t hold the vacant seat once held by the late Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.). 

Facing a 17-seat deficit in the House, Democrats can’t afford to lose one of the few toss-up seats left in the country. Such a failure would undercut their message that they can put GOP-leaning seats on the map or even compete in places where President Obama narrowly won in 2012. 

If they win this long-held GOP district where voters skew older, Democrats will loudly tout their victory as evidence the political climate isn’t that bad for them and that a Democrat can indeed message effectively on ObamaCare. If they lose, Democrats will downplay the results as a product of the political realities of a truncated campaign and a special election electorate expected to favor the GOP from the start.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) argued in an email that if Sink wins, despite an expected GOP turnout advantage, it’s a clear signal that Democrats have a chance in even tougher races this cycle.

“Special elections are exactly that, special. But if Sink is able to overcome the double-digit Republican advantage, it will show that Republicans’ out-of-touch agenda, obsessive focus on repealing the Affordable Care Act and insistence on stacking the deck for special interests at the expense of the middle class is toxic even in a district that is far more Republican than nearly any other district that will be up for grabs in the fall,” he said.

Republicans would tout a win as evidence ObamaCare is truly the death knell they believe it is for Democrats. That argument would be all the more convincing for Jolly’s widely panned campaign. 

If they lose, the GOP will point to the deck they say was stacked against them. Even Jolly himself was downplaying his chances on the eve of the election. In a Fox News interview, he told host Neil Cavuto that “the demographics here trend Democrat.”

But Jolly added that his race does have implications for other races nationwide.

“I actually would argue it trends Democrat and I would say that makes it even more important when we win tomorrow what it means for our party, for the national party on the Republican side going into November,” he said. “I think we know if we hold this seat [Tuesday], which I believe we will, that means the Republicans not only hold the House in November but I think it means a very good year for us in the Senate as well.”

As of Monday, absentee ballots showed a slightly tighter race than the one in 2012, when Obama won the district by about a point. Then, Republicans posted a 6-point advantage ahead of Election Day; now, Republicans returning ballots were up 5 percent over Democrats. Most public polling has shown Sink drawing a greater portion of crossover voters than Jolly, giving Democrats hope that some of those early ballots will boost Sink.

Republicans also have reason to worry from libertarian Lucas Overby, who they willingly admit could draw 3 to 4 percent of the vote away from Jolly, helping Sink.

Both the Democratic and Republican narratives on ObamaCare have gotten solid play. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, nearly $9 million has been spent on air and mail by outside groups — $4.9 million backing Jolly and $3.7 million backing Sink. It rises to $11 million with candidate spending.

Republicans have hammered Sink on the litany of negative effects of the law just ahead of the end of the open enrollment period at the end of March. 

“Canceled health plans, higher premiums, Medicare cuts, people losing their doctors, a disaster for families and seniors,” says the narrator in one ad hitting Sink, launched by the Chamber of Commerce.

Meanwhile, Democrats have tested the defense they’ll need to use nationwide on the law’s rocky rollout. In many ads, Sink has emphasized her commitment to fixing the law, rather than repealing it, and has declared that Republicans want to go back to the issues with healthcare before ObamaCare was passed — a message Democrats say aligns with what the rest of the electorate wants on the law, per national polling.

The candidates’ flaws have heavily factored into the race. Republicans have painted Sink, who moved to the district to run, as a carpetbagger and a reckless spender beholden to Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). They’ve knocked her in ads for what they say was her inappropriate use of a taxpayer-funded plane for personal and campaign trips when she was the state’s chief financial officer, and charged she mismanaged the state’s pension fund. 

Sink, too, had a number of verbal stumbles in the race, confirming earlier Democratic concerns. She caused headaches for national Democrats after declaring the party wouldn’t take back the House; suggested immigration reform was needed to ensure hotels could find janitors, and said the possibility that ObamaCare would result in fewer jobs because people were choosing not to work was an “exciting prospect.” 

Democrats repeatedly attacked Jolly for his lobbying background, pointing to his work for a group that pushed Social Security privatization as evidence Jolly himself wouldn’t protect the program in the senior-heavy district. 

A smattering of negative headlines also distracted from the race. They include details about the recently divorced Jolly, 41, dating former employee who is 14 years younger and an accidental car crash he was involved in that left a man dead.

Jolly tried to characterize himself as the heir apparent to Young, his former boss.  Republicans admit that narrative never really caught fire — perhaps because Jolly ran a race, some say, inexplicably to the right even after the primary. He never tapped his D.C. fundraising connections either and heavily trailed Sink in cash. 

Indeed, even if Republicans do lose they said they won’t make any strategic adjustments coming away from the race. Dan Conston, communications director for the Congressional Leadership Fund, said the race is a better indicator of how the two parties can do with demographic groups they typically have trouble wooing. 

“I don’t believe this race is an indicator of much of anything in terms of what does this tell you about the fall,” he said. “It’s us trying to improve our standing among women and it’s them trying to chip away at our base with seniors.”

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) made it clear that ObamaCare will be a central issue in 2014 no matter what happens in Florida’s 13th District. Asked whether the outcome of the special would affect their strategy of pushing ObamaCare repeal, Boehner flatly told reporters: “No.”