With the votes tallied in Florida’s 13th Congressional District Special election, Republican David Jolly pulled a decent sized upset over Democrat Alex Sink (48.5%-46.7%). The unexpected news has lit up the political analysis scene as virtually everybody had the race pegged as Sink’s race to lose. Even Republicans seemed to have assumed Jolly would lose.
Sink, the former 2010 Democratic gubernatorial nominee, avoided a contentious primary. Jolly, not even the first choice of his party, had to win a three way primary and than transition to the general. Jolly struggled to raise funds as Sink easily raked in the cash. Jolly was aided by outside groups that helped make up his cash shortfall but in the end Sink and Democratic leaning groups outspent Jolly and GOP groups by slightly less than $1 million.
Sink had over four weeks to air ads introducing herself to voters in the district and paint a picture of herself as a problem-solving moderate before Jolly introduced himself. Sink also started the race with better name ID as she had actually won the county (which encompasses the entire CD) in her 2010 gubernatorial bid by a not insubstantial 6% margin. Registered Republicans still outnumber registered Democrats in the county by a few thousand but turnout and outside factors seemed to have determined the race here and that is why Democrats should be fretting.
Jolly’s campaign was largely built around opposition and repealing Obamacare. Sink, following a Democratic playbook in use since last year, tried to argue the law should be fixed. However, her lack of details on how to fix the law probably made Jolly’s firm stance more credible. Florida-13 was also closely watched because it is one of the true remaining swing districts in the country and it had been trending purple since the 90’s. Bill Young, now deceased, had kept it in GOP hands even as this was happening.
Worrisome for Democrats running in red-leaning states/races and even purple states/races is that it seems the fundamentals of the race were overwhelmed by the national environment (ie. Obamacare and the economy). Admittedly, Sink was not as entrenched as incumbents like Landrieu (LA) and Pryor (AR), but she was running in less conservative territory and she maintained stronger name ID and outspent Jolly. Even purple state Senators like Shaheen (NH), Udall (CO) and Warner (VA) may not be safe if the district’s voters reflect a trend in the nation’s voters.
Of course this was just one special election. Turnout was substantially down from 08, 010 and 012 as expected. But Democrats were upbeat that they would not suffer a turnout drop-off. Indeed, Democrats bragged that absentee ballots showed they were doing better than they did in 012 (when Obama won the county). If so, this means Jolly significantly over-performed among election day voters or Democratic projections on turnout were well off the mark.
It is the latter that should worry Democrats more. Their modern coalition is one of low income voters, minorities, the young, single women and suburban residents. Without Obama at the top of the ticket and a stagnant economy turnout among minorities and the young might drop. For example, this has already been seen in special elections for open state senate seats in Virginia In Senate races where Romney won in 2012, minority turnout is crucial for Democratic success as white voters in these states have abandoned the party in mass. It may be the case in Florida’s special election we saw some combination of minorities and the young not showing up to vote.
Democrats have countered that this is just one special election. Special elections tend to attract a whiter and more Republican electorate. True. But that does not make Sink’s loss any less worrisome for the party. She held all the cards in the race and the one thing she could not control, the national environment, likely did her in. If that is true it means Democrats control of the Senate is in serious jeopardy this November.
Addendum: Embattled Senator Mary Landrieu (LA) recently stated she thought flood insurance, not Healthcare, decided the race. It is certainly an interesting idea but both Sink and Jolly were supportive of the flood insurance bill that passed the House last week, making the idea dubious at best. Of course, this argument coming from Landrieu is understandable considering her entire strategy to deal with Obamacare is to embrace it and promise fixes. Well, in FL-13, she just saw a similar Democrat do the same thing and lose among a more friendly electorate.