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The seat Democrats couldn't afford to lose

Republicans take a Florida congressional race in a preview of this fall’s fight for Congress

David Jolly celebrates winning Florida's special election. Associated Press/Photo by Chris Zuppa/The Tampa Bay Times

The seat Democrats couldn't afford to lose

Get ready for a bombardment of Obamacare campaign commercials later this year as Republicans try to take control of Congress and stifle President Barack Obama’s agenda during his final years in office.

That’s the main takeaway from Tuesday night’s GOP victory in Florida’s congressional special election. In what many called a bellwether for this fall’s midterm races, a Republican won an open House seat in a congressional district that twice went for President Obama.

David Jolly defeated Democrat Alex Sink in Florida’s 13th district. Political groups spent more than $11 million in the race that became a test case for Obamacare and a dress rehearsal for the messaging strategies that will dominate battleground races nationwide this fall.

Jolly won with 48.5 percent of the vote, compared to Sink’s 46.7 percent in the special election to replace Rep. Bill Young, who died of cancer in October. Libertarian candidate Lucas Overby won 4.8 percent of the vote.

Young, a Republican, held the seat for 42 years in this Tampa-area district along the Gulf Coast. But many still considered the race a toss-up. Obama won there by a 52 percent to 48 percent margin in 2008 and with a 50 percent to 49 percent advantage in 2012. Many Democrats felt they had a shot at the seat, with voter demographics slightly shifting to the Democratic Party. But Sink got a lower percentage of votes than Obama, casting doubt on the party’s ability to take control of the House this November.

Jolly won despite being heavily outspent nearly four-to-one by Sink, who lost the Florida governor’s race in 2010 to Republican Rick Scott.

Jolly won in part by tying Sink to Obamacare, his victory serving as a blueprint for Republicans vying for congressional seats. Jolly repeatedly called for repealing the controversial healthcare law. Sink refused to support Obamacare’s repeal.

But both sides tried to use Obamacare to their advantage. Democrats said a vote for Jolly meant more votes by House Republicans to repeal or replace the healthcare law. Republicans hoped Obamacare’s disastrous rollout would harm Sink, and Democrats hoped the GOP’s repeated votes to change the law would hurt Jolly. Voters sided with the Republicans. That suggests future Democratic candidates can expect campaign ads tethering them to Obamacare.

“Democrats are in grave, grave danger,” National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Greg Walden said in a statement. “Nancy Pelosi’s most prized candidate in the entire country was brought down because of Obamacare, President Obama and the Democrats total mishandling of our economy. Try as she might, Alex Sink could not unhook herself from the sinking ship the Democrats are steering.”

The Democrats had their own spin on the election, blaming their loss on outside Republican money and claiming they were competitive in what they called a “heavily Republican” district.

“Republicans fell short of their normal margin in this district because the agenda they are offering voters has a singular focus—that a majority of voters oppose—repealing the Affordable Care Act that would return us to the same old broken health care system,” Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chairwomen, said in a statement.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, said Democrats knew from the beginning that this race “would be an uphill battle.” But that discounts Obama’s recent wins there. The district’s actual breakdown is 37 percent Republican, 35 percent Democrat and 24 percent independent, with recent surveys showing it tilts more towards Democrats. Wasserman Schultz, Pelosi, and other Democrats tried to downplay the race’s implications. But more than a third of the contributions to Jolly came from members of Congress, underscoring how important the race was to Republicans.

In January, Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of political newsletter The Rothenberg Report, called the Florida special election, “the race Democrats can’t afford to lose.”

Rothenberg wrote nonpartisan handicappers have predicted for years that the district would go Democratic when it became open. He predicted a Republican victory “would almost certainly be regarded by dispassionate observers as a sign that President Barack Obama could constitute an albatross around the neck of his party’s nominees in November. And that could make it more difficult for Democratic candidates, campaign committees and interest groups to raise money and energize the grass roots.”

Sink even carried the district by two percentage points in her 2010 governor’s race loss to Scott. With her political experience and campaign war chest, many predicted Sink would come away Tuesday with the victory.

But now, instead of Democrats being one seat closer to taking over the House majority, they must still pick up 17 seats in November. Sink’s loss raises new doubts about that possibility. Her defeat also makes it more likely the Democrats’ majority in the Senate could be at risk. Republicans need to gain just six seats there to take control of both sides of the U.S. Capitol for Obama’s final two years in the White House.

Republicans also touted Jolly’s win because they said it field-tested the GOP’s new technical data-gathering tools. Obama’s team trounced Republicans in recent years when it came to the social media side of campaigns. But now, Republicans claim they have learned how to use technical tools to coordinate messaging, target likely voters, and increase turnout.

The political stars came out for this race, with Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., rallying the troops for Jolly and former President Bill Clinton recording a phone call for Sink. But Sink could not overcome Obamacare and the president’s weak poll numbers. In a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released hours after the Florida results, Obama had the lowest job-approval ratings of his presidency, dropping to 41 percent in March, down from 43 percent in January. About 54 percent polled said they disapproved of the job he is doing, matching the previous high from December.

After attacking his opponent over Obamacare during the race, Jolly did not mention the law in his victory speech.

“This race is not about defending a broken agenda in Washington or advancing a broken agenda in Washington,” said Jolly, who must run for his seat again this fall, meaning the nearly $12 million spent on the race will keep the seat for just 10 months. “This race is about serving the people in our own community. Let’s dispense with the rancor and vitriol of the last five months.”

Listen to Kent Covington discuss the Jolly-Sink race and its national implications with Washington-based Republican strategist Phillip Stutts on The World and Everything in It:

Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is the executive director of the World Journalism Institute and former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for WORLD Magazine. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and teaches journalism at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa.


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