When the final returns for the Florida District 13 special election I handicapped yesterday came in, Republican David Jolly emerged the winner, succeeding the late Rep. Bill Young. It was indeed a close race, although Jolly won by a slightly higher margin than anticipated, winning 48.5 percent to Democrat Alex Sink’s 46.7. The Libertarian spoiler candidate, Lucas Overby, ended up a bit lower than his polling peak, so perhaps Jolly benefit from some last-minute changes of heart by Libertarian-leaning voters worried about handing the race to the Democrat. In a close election, it’s difficult to point at one or two factors and pronounce them decisive.
But of course, that’s what everyone immediately does. I retain my ambivalence about interpreting Jolly’s win as a sure sign that Democrats are cooked across the board in 2014, and ObamaCare will be the grill they fry upon. But at least Republicans can make a logical case that ObamaCare worked to their man’s advantage to some degree. It came up frequently on the campaign trial, and while Alex Sink wasn’t one of the frauds who actually perpetrated ObamaCare on the American people, she had the unenviable task of trying to distance herself from it, selling herself as someone who could “fix” the biggest government disaster of the modern era. The fear that will prey upon the minds of many a Democrat up for election in 2014 is that nobody can swim fast enough to escape the tidal pull of this Titanic as she sinks. Incumbents who actually did vote for the Affordable Care Act must have spent the night bathed in sweat.
It can’t make them feel any better to watch their party leadership descend into eye-rolling lunacy. Here’s Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), chair of the Democratic National Committee, commenting on Jolly’s victory via Twitter: “The GOP underperformed last tonight in the FL-13 – a district they’ve held for decades.”
The word “underpeformed” immediately became comedy fodder across the Internet, and every imperiled Democrat must have felt their stomachs drop between their ankles. That’s the spin from the DNC? The Republican candidate who began his race with a bitterly contested primary, got outspent 3 to 1 by his far more experienced and recognizable opponent, basically listed “Washington lobbyist” as the major point on his political resume, survived a third-party spoiler candidacy, and won by 2 points in a district Barack Obama carried twice was underperforming?
As Jim Geraghty of National Review pointed out in one of the funnier responses to Wasserman Schultz, it’s rather tricky to compute what the “normal margin of victory” for Republicans in FL-13 might be, because Rep. Young ran his last seven races unopposed.
Alex Isenstadt at Politico is one of the analysts who thinks this was a crippling loss for Democrats, who blew a “golden opportunity” to pick up the seat after decades of Republican incumbency:
They had the right candidate matchup: Alex Sink, a respected former statewide official who nearly won the governorship in 2010, up against a former lobbyist, Republican David Jolly. They had the right district: A swing region of Florida that appeared poised to elect a Democrat after more than four decades of GOP representation. And they certainly had the money: In a year of staggering GOP spending, Sink far outraised her opponent and got nearly $4 million in help from outside Democratic groups.
In the end, it wasn???t enough. Jolly won by 3,456 votes. And he did it by playing a hand Republicans across the country are expected to follow: Run as an opponent to the president???s unpopular health care law and the Democrat as for it.
Democrats are scrambling to launch a counteroffensive ??? and if they don???t come up with one fast, Tuesday???s loss could foreshadow a brutal year for the party at the ballot box this fall.
Although I think the number of factors feeding into this race makes it difficult to use as a harbinger for other contests in 2014, Isenstat makes the point that this was exactly the sort of district Democrats need to win, if they want to retake the House in the foreseeable future: “Its electorate is older, overwhelmingly white, and politically moderate – in other words, the kind of people who dominate many of the swing congressional districts across the country. In fact, the district should have been one of the Democratic Party’s most winnable targets.”
Josh Kraushaar at National Journal think it’s significant that Sink got sunk by ObamaCare, even though she didn’t vote on the Affordable Care Act, and suggests her campaign might have gotten sloppy after tallying up their gigantic financial advantage and looking at early polls. (Democrats often forget how some of their favorite polling outlets like to cook up unrealistic numbers to depress Republican turnout.) “One of the key questions in the race was whether a ‘fix, don’t repeal’ message would resonate with voters dissatisfied with the health care law but unwilling to give up on it,” writes Kraushaar. “The verdict is incomplete, but it’s an early sign of the depth of anger over ObamaCare.”
Alex Sink bizarrely concluded her concession speech by declaring, “Although we’re disappointed, the bars are open” and vanishing, presumably to avail herself of some consolation beverages. I can’t think of a worse note for her to end her campaign on. Democrats seem to have a weird obsession with happy hours and bars these days. Maybe they think it helps them appear populist and in touch with the working man.
At least you don’t have to be drunk to handle the Republican spin. Fox News brings us a sample:
???Tonight, one of Nancy Pelosi???s most prized candidates was ultimately brought down because of her unwavering support for ObamaCare, and that should be a loud warning for other Democrats running coast to coast,” said National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore. “Pinellas County voters have made the right choice; David will be a dedicated and thoughtful representative for them in Congress.???
If the Republicans are sharp enough to use House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and the even more repulsive Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, as key figures in their bid for a 2014 sweep, we might have to stop calling them “The Stupid Party” for a while.
As for the victorious David Jolly, I shall resist making the obvious pun by saying that he appears to be in a good mood. His victory statement:
As of this moment, Pinellas County will be represented by someone other than Congressman Bill Young for the first time in 43 years, and it is truly an honor to be Pinellas??? choice to continue to build on his legacy of service and of care for every man, woman and child who calls Pinellas County home. The first order of business tomorrow is not to open an office in Washington, D.C.; it???s to open an office right down the street here; to take care of those in our community who need assistance; to work with our veterans, our seniors, our homeowners and entrepreneurs; and to take care of those in our community who need assistance.
Elections have a way of dividing us. That shouldn???t be. The vitriol and the attacks only drive us apart and shake the confidence of voters. In fact, elections should bring us together as a community. And, since announcing my campaign on November 7, I have asked not to lead this community, but to represent this community. I have not asked for a seat in Congress; but instead, for a position from which I can serve Pinellas County. That is my commitment to you tonight and for as long as you allow me to serve as your member of Congress.
Tonight brings an end to this election. Tomorrow provides the opportunity to embark together on a new journey of community service here in Pinellas County. Thank you for letting me be a part of that journey.
One other tea leaf to read from the FL-13 race is the effect of President Obama’s continuing slide in popularity, with a new Wall Street Journal / NBC News poll finding him at “the lowest job-approval ratings of his presidency,” 41 percent approval vs. 54 percent disapproval. Some of this is due to unhappiness over Obama’s handling of the Ukraine crisis, a factor that will most likely fade by the time Election Day rolls around, and the poll finds a simmering level of discontent with Republicans and Washington in general, too. But that’s inevitably going to be worse news for the Party of Really Freaking Huge Government, especially if the GOP comes to its senses and stops trying to beat up grassroots conservatives and Tea Party activists in an internal power struggle.
The President’s approval rating are but one data point in a midterm election calculation, but it’s very difficult for his party’s candidates to completely escape his orbit. If the voters don’t like him, they take the only chance they’ve got to vent their frustration his party. And if they want things done differently in Washington, they respond to the opposition party’s appeals, particularly when there’s a realistic chance they can take the Senate and change the rules of the game. At the very least, the FL-13 race shows there is no burning appetite among swing voters to give the House back to Democrats. They really needed a win here, to shore up their morale against the coming midterm storm, and they didn’t get it.
Update: Another element of the FL-13 race that should not be underestimated: the “ground game.” Whatever difficulties Jolly and Sink might have encountered on the campaign trail, Jolly’s get-out-the-vote effort was, by all accounts, far superior to Sink’s. A great deal of electoral success boils down to the shoe-leather work of canvassing districts and getting voters to the polls. It’s something the Democrats have generally done better in recent years, with the 2012 presidential election a particularly potent example. Republican candidates have too often assumed that if they run a good race, people will flock to the polls. The flocks need guidance. Hopefully Jolly’s team will spend the next few months showing other Republican campaigns what they did.