A political Rorshach test in Florida District 13

Florida’s District 13 will hold a special election Tuesday to replace its late Republican congressional representative, Bill Young, who died last October.  The race to fill his seat between Democrat Alex Sink and Republican David Jolly is very tight.  Sink was up a point or two before the early votes started coming in, giving Jolly an unexpected surge.  Victory for one candidate or the other is likely to come by a very thin margin.

And that, of course, means that the Sink-Jolly race will become the political equivalent of a Rorschach inkblot, with every observer reading their partisan desires into the outcome.  CBS News headlined their weekend look at the race “Florida’s special election offers midterm campaign preview,” but it’s hard to think of a less accurate way to describe it.  This is a unique contest in which virtually every advantage for one candidate is balanced by something in the other’s portfolio.

For starters, there’s the political legacy of Bill Young, who held this perfectly balanced swing district since the early 1970s.  That should have given his prospective Republican successor quite an advantage… except Jolly had to endure a messy primary, plus some intense soap opera dramatics from the Young family.  Rep. Young’s widow claimed it was his deathbed wish for Jolly to succeed him, but Young’s son endorsed Jolly’s primary opponent instead, leading to an ugly public spat.  Sink, meanwhile, had a smooth launch as the Democrat candidate.

Sink had much better name recognition, and more political experience than Jolly, including a serious run at the Florida governor’s office in 2010.  (Jolly’s relevant experience comes largely from working as a lobbyist, which is not the ideal resume bullet point in politics today.)  Sink was able to raise better than double Jolly’s campaign money… but then ObamaCare rocked every Democrat candidate on their heels, and outside groups poured a good $12.5 million into the race.  That means two-thirds of the money in this contest is controlled by outside groups, blunting Sink’s financial advantages.

Neither candidate has been really stellar on the trail, which might normally give Jolly a leg up due to partisan inertia in a district that leans very slightly Republican at the moment… but national Republican observers have heaped scorn upon a badly-run Jolly campaign, describing it as “a Keystone Cops” operation to Politico, “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.”

Jolly’s money problems gave Democrats a chance to beat him silly after he won the primary – the sort of early hit that often pays big dividends by defining a candidate in the minds of voters, before he can find his voice.  The National Republican Congressional Committee stepped in to help the Jolly campaign with an ad criticizing Sink for personal use of a state airplane when she was Florida’s chief financial officer; Jolly publicly distanced himself from the ad, enraging NRCC officials to the point where four-letter words were deployed.  (Not to stir the hornet’s nest, but wouldn’t it be a good idea to show the material for major ad buys to the candidate before air time is purchased, to make sure he’s fully on board with whatever the national party plans to say on his behalf?)

There’s also a significant Libertarian spoiler candidate in the race, Lucas Overby, who has been polling far beyond Libertarian voter registration, and might normally have been expected to hand Alex Sink the election on a silver platter… except Senator Rand Paul stepped in to help Jolly with an endorsement and automated phone calls.

So there you have the outline of the Rorshach inkblot, and it’s not difficult to guess what each side will perceive, especially if the final vote tally is extremely close.  A Republican observer could note that Jolly was an underdog candidate who got off to a rough start, quickly lost most of the advantages from Young’s legacy, couldn’t scrape together half the money in his opponent’s war chest, ran a campaign that left veteran observers cold… and still clawed his way to a narrow lead on the eve of the election, en route to a narrow victory or narrow loss.  Obviously, that has to mean ObamaCare is poison for Democrats, even when they distance themselves from it, as Sink has done.

Democrats, on the other hand, will say that ObamaCare can’t be all that bad, because Sink was slightly ahead until the early vote surge rolled in for Jolly, and she’ll end up scraping together either a narrow win or narrow loss in a Republican-leaning swing district, despite a reputation for stiff, stage-managed performances on the campaign trail, plus a few notable gaffes, particularly a recent event where she mused that immigration is important to provide her state with an adequate supply of groundskeepers and hotel maids.

Did David Jolly come further from a tougher start, or did Alex Sink climb higher out of a deeper national hole for her party?  No prizes for guessing which one of those narratives most of the media will prefer.  You’ll know Sink won if you see her mentioned in headlines after the election; you’ll know Jolly won if you’re reading about the results on page A-6.

Update: As of Tuesday morning, Republican David Jolly’s edge in early and absentee votes had grown to five points.  Earlier handicaps of the race postulated that anything better than a four-point lead in early voting would make a Jolly win likely.  We’ll know for certain soon enough.  It would be one more interesting data point from a race with a lot of moving parts if Jolly lost on Election Day despite such a formidable early-vote lead.

Update: Less than an hour after polls closed on Tuesday evening, David Jolly was declared the winner of the FL-13 special election.