"Dems should not try to spin this loss,” Democratic strategist Paul Begala wrote Tuesday evening on Twitter just after Republican David Jolly bested Democrat Alex Sink in a closely watched House special election in Florida.
On Wednesday, Begala’s party largely ignored him as they sought to spin away a crushing defeat in the race to succeed the late Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.).
Democrats believed Jolly was a flawed candidate, and the Florida district has split roughly evenly between Democrats and Republicans on the presidential level in the past.
Opportunity knocked for a party desperately seeking momentum for the fall.
Instead, the result left bare how much of a fantasy it is for Democrats to claim they have a real shot at wining the 17 seats needed to win back a House majority.
Strategists privately said even before the Florida vote, Democrats would have a good election if they hold water in the House and stave off a GOP takeover in the Senate.
After the defeat, it appears Republicans have a great chance of not only taking the Senate but expanding their advantage in the House.
Democrats are running against history, since an incumbent president’s party almost always loses seats in their second midterm.
They are also running on the coattails of a weak president whose approval rating is in the low 40s, and whose eponymous healthcare law is clearly a drag.
Democrats pointed out Wednesday that Sink lost by only 2 points and less than 3,500 votes amid high GOP turnout.
They also noted that nearly $13 million in outside spending influenced the race.
In a Tuesday night memo, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee called the district that President Obama carried twice a “heavily Republican district” that Republicans had poured millions into to “salvage” a seat they had held for decades.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) argued this wasn’t a sign of things to come, but that they could take instruction from their loss without drawing predictions.
“Special elections are not indicators of the future — they never have been; they never will be,” he told reporters.
The onus is on Democrats to pick up exactly the kind of district as Florida’s 13th, regardless of outside factors. Otherwise donors will not believe their claims about wining the House and might turn to other causes.
In November, some of the headwinds will be even tougher: For example, you can bet there will be a more favorable GOP turnout in Senate races in Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska, West Virginia and Montana than there was in Florida’s 13th District.
An open seat against Jolly — a flawed, underfunded candidate — was the recipe for success that never panned out.
Special elections are, by their nature, special, but this district was still a better test case than other past races both sides have crowed about.
In 2011, New York Democrat Kathy Hochul and Republican Bob Turner pulled off upsets running in districts stacked against them.
Both were running in districts where the opposite party had an advantage, and both faced candidates seen as weak like Jolly. Unlike Sink, both were able to prevail.
As a result, Jolly’s victory is a real morale booster for Republicans. It will boost the party’s confidence that it will win in November because of the healthcare law’s problems and Obama’s weaknesses.
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden (Ore.) told The Hill that the GOP could “absolutely” pick up seats in the House, and his colleagues in the Senate would also reap from the message Jolly’s win sent.
“These are people who got swept in with Obama,” Walden said of the Senate. “They’re about to get swept out with Obama.”
A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found Obama’s approval rating has fallen to an all-time low of 41 percent. A record-high 20 percent of Democrats disapprove of him, according to the poll.
Thirty-three percent of those polled said their vote this fall would signal opposition to the president.
On a Wednesday morning call with reporters, Democratic pollster Geoff Garin reiterated many of the talking points from his memo the DCCC had circulated earlier. He insisted Obama-
Care wasn’t the only driving force in the Florida race, which Democrats believe Sink neutralized, and that this was a much tougher district for Democrats than many of the ones they hope to win this fall.
But Garin also admitted ObamaCare is rallying Republicans to the polls — not Democrats.
“The one thing we do have to acknowledge is that the [Affordable Care Act] was a motivator for Republicans to turn out and vote, and less so for Democrats,” he said.
Democrats have an enthusiasm gap, and they need to find a way to fix it — fast.
If they can’t, the cash edge they now enjoy over their GOP counterparts could disappear, and their problems will grow worse.
But for Begala at least, the former Clinton aide and an adviser to 2016-centric super PAC Priorities USA Action, is spinning into action.
“We’ve decided that we’re going to go all in on 2014. We’re not raising any money for the presidential race, we’re not spending any money for 2016,” he told The Hill. “I take this defeat yesterday as a real spur, a call to action.”
Alexandra Jaffe contributed