Just how much of a bellwether was the special election in FL-13? If there’s one solid prediction to make in a special election, it’s that the winning side will call it a bellwether and the losing side will insist it’s not. In this case, though, denial will be difficult to support from Democrats, who poured $5.4 million into Alex Sink’s campaign, only to see her lose to David Jolly, a candidate the broad consensus called “flawed.” Jolly ran against ObamaCare more than Sink, though, while Sink got forced into defending it — and that’s why Joe Scarborough declared the race a harbinger of a “historic” midterm defeat for Democrats:
“History shows Obamacare sunk Democrats in 2010,” Scarborough said. “I think we may have something historic here happening, where you have one act actually causing grave damage to a political party two midterms in a row.”
“I personally believe Alex Sink’s consultants, that had her stand in front of the camera that said ‘fix the Affordable Care Act,’ I think that’s a horrible mistake,” Scarborough continued. “You don’t fight on enemy terrain. She tried to fight on enemy terrain, defending this act that no Democrat has tried to defend over the last four years. They just don’t do it because you can’t do it on the campaign trail, unless you like losing.”
The problem for Democrats will be that ObamaCare literally impacts everyone, and overwhelmingly in bad ways — by making insurance and health care more expensive, and doctors less willing to take new patients. That’s not true of the issues that Democrats would rather discuss than ObamaCare; even income inequality, the big theme of Democrats since the State of the Union speech, is aimed at benefiting a small percentage of the population. Plus, ObamaCare was literally the Democratic effort on supposed health-care inequality, so it’s not really changing the subject at all. They have little choice but to fight on “enemy terrain,” and even a big money advantage won’t help.
Politico’s Alex Isenstadt called FL-13 a “big blow” to the midterm hopes of Democrats:
Florida’s 13th District is, in many ways, the archetype of the kind of seat Democrats need to win if they’re serious about erasing their 17-seat House deficit anytime soon. 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. Of the 37 GOP-held seats that the Cook Political Report ranks as the most vulnerable to Democratic takeover, only 11 are more Democratic-friendly than Florida’s 13th. The district has just a narrow GOP registration edge.
“If the Democrats can’t win with their former gubernatorial candidate with 100 percent name ID, where are they going to win?” asked Guy Harrison, a former National Republican Congressional Committee executive director. “When the Democrats look at their playing field, they don’t have too many better seats to target. They don’t have too much of a prayer for winning the majority.”
Some Democrats viewed the race as a template for how the party could win in purple-hued districts. Over the past two months, Sink rolled out an elaborate plan to win over the GOP and independent voters she’d need to take the district, airing ads in which she promised to “work across the aisle. … Bringing Republicans and Democrats together — that’s what I’ve always done, and that’s what I’ll do in Congress.”
But Jolly’s win shows just how politically treacherous the path is for Democrats running in such moderate-to-conservative areas. Rather than moving to the center, Jolly pushed to the right, painting himself as a foe of President Barack Obama and his Affordable Care Act — and presenting Sink as a staunch ally.
“She supports Obamacare. I don’t. I’m David Jolly, and I approve this message because [we] need someone to look out for our interests, not President Obama’s,” he said in one TV ad.
In the face of those kinds of attacks, Sink’s can’t-we-all-just-get-along message just didn’t cut it.
Republicans should take care not to read too much into this, either. Sink only underperformed Barack Obama’s 2012 margin by five points in the district, and turnout models in special elections are much different than those in regular elections. Still, Democrats had the matchup they wanted with Sink against a former lobbyist and Beltway insider, won the cash fight by almost a million dollars — and still lost by almost two points in a three-way race. That may not mean everything or be a perfect predictor of what will come in November, but it’s not meaningless, either.