Democrats are trying to downplay the results of Tuesday’s special election to replace the late Bill Young in Florida’s 13th Congressional District. While the election results speak for themselves, a deeper analysis suggests that FL-13 portends a disastrous November for Democrats nationally.
Contrary to Democrats’ implications that their candidate should never have been considered the favorite, the district is not “heavily Republican” but rather slightly Republican-leaning in voter registration, at 34.6% Dem and 37.0% Republican. (On the other hand, news outlets like ABC make the district sound more Democrat than it is by implying that the 13th CD contains the entirety of Pinellas County.)
But these are not hard-core Republican base voters: Alex Sink won the district while losing the Florida governor’s race to Rick Scott in 2010. Barack Obama won the district in both 2008 and 2012.
Alex Sink had far higher name recognition than did David Jolly, and she faced no primary challenger. David Jolly was much less well-known — two weeks before the election, Sink helpfully quipped that “people in Pinellas County don’t know David Jolly.” He clawed his way through a primary, winning with 44.6% of the vote against two other Republicans (who got 24% and 31%, respectively), hardly creating momentum going into the general election. Republicans know what it’s like to have a primary damage a candidate enough to substantially help the Democrat opponent; it’s commonly called the “circular firing squad” — a political death which Jolly had to avoid.
Alex Sink is very popular in the district (or at least in the county overall): She won the district during the 2010 Republican electoral wave at the same time that the county (more Democratic than the district) went more than 2-to-1 for Republican Senator Marco Rubio and by a 12 percent margin for a Republican State Attorney General. In other words, Sink was not a generic Democratic candidate in this election; all else being equal, she should have again substantially outperformed the voter registration balance.
Sink’s campaign raised 2.5 times as much money as Jolly’s campaign, though spending by outside groups narrowed that ratio. It is being widely reported that Sink’s campaign outspent Jolly 3-to-1 on television ads. Yet she still lost.
David Jolly was nearly abandoned by the Republican Party — apparently all too willing to reconstitute a circular firing squad. A Politico article less than a week before the election (probably designed to help Alex Sink) offered this pearl of political reporting:
Over the past week, a half-dozen Washington Republicans have described Jolly’s campaign against Democrat Alex Sink as a Keystone Cops operation, 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. The sources would speak only on condition of anonymity.
So not only did Jolly have to overcome Sink’s cash advantage (Politico says “his campaign entered the general election nearly broke”), her name recognition, and media partisanship, but he had to contend with Republican tools talking down his campaign so they could blame him if he lost. With friends like that…
The liberal polling group PPP released a poll the day before the election predicting a Sink victory (with a margin of about 3 percent.) Given that a majority of people who voted in the election had already voted by the time of the poll, its results were stunningly wrong. Democrat loons were suggesting that the poll should be posted widely on Facebook to try to depress “TeaPublican” turnout. At least one loon was both smart and stupid enough to suggest it may have been premature to break out the “champaign” (sic).
An independent poll taken a month before the election showed Sink with a seven-point advantage over Jolly. Indeed, most polls of the race predicted a Sink victory, many by wider margins than seven points, and it’s not really surprising given all of Jolly’s headwinds and hurdles. The more voters thought about whether they wanted another Democrat in Congress, the more they didn’t like the idea. This should worry Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Barack Obama quite a lot (not that Obama really cares about his fellow Democrats’ political careers, since he intends to run the rest of his presidency via a pen and a phone).
Putting aside PPP’s mistaken prediction, internals of their poll, if correct, make the results in FL-13 an even bigger worry for Democrats. In particular, PPP suggests that Alex Sink won (or at least was winning) Independent voters by a wide margin. It couldn’t have been very wide to have the final results be what they were. But still, if Sink won independents at all, that is something that will not frequently be repeated around the country in November. Independents are much closer to Republicans when it comes to Obamacare, which will continue to be the most important issue throughout this year (unless there’s a war...can you say “Wag the Dog”?)
Even the folks at the Washington Post, hardly an outlet for Republican cheerleading, note that the current lack of trust in government and in the two major political parties is causing — including in a significant way among independent voters — a lean toward the GOP. This effect is likely to be larger in most places than it was in Florida 13 because of Alex Sink’s particular individual popularity, which was still not enough to overcome the stink of being a Democrat in a swing district in 2014.
There’s another conclusion to be drawn from the PPP poll and from the Sink campaign's failure: 2014 congressional elections will, for Democrats, be about distancing and distracting from Obamacare. While Alex Sink kept President Obama away from the district last week despite his being in Florida (he would probably have been too busy golfing to stop by anyway), her tepid statements about “fixing” Obamacare were not enough to allow her to switch the election’s focus. But it wasn’t due to lack of trying. Sink and her environmentalist-leftist supporters bombarded the airwaves with ads like "Ignore" (which the Sierra Club wasted $350,000 on) painting David Jolly as a climate change skeptic. PPP said that “69% of voters in the district say that it’s important for their new member in Congress to address the problem of climate change, including 44% who say it’s ‘very important.’” They added that climate-related ads “really worked to Sink’s advantage — voters trust her more than Jolly to address climate change by a 17 point margin, 48/31.”
In other words, at least according to PPP, a substantial majority thought an issue other than Obamacare was important, and those people preferred Alex Sink’s position by a wide margin. And she still lost. Because the issues where Democrats are strongest are the issues Americans care least about, despite the hopes of liberal pollsters. Except in the very rare situation in which a Democrat is willing to call for the repeal of Obamacare, no amount of distraction will be enough to save him or her in a purple district (or state) in November. And no incumbent Senator who voted for Obamacare, which is to say every Democrat, can now say it should be repealed without giving his or her opponent a campaign issue just as powerful as the current gift-that-keeps-on-giving. Can you say “Former Senator Mark Pryor”?
One final thought, as a former registered Libertarian: The Libertarian candidate in Florida’s special election received almost 8,900 votes, nearly 5 percent of the total vote count, and more than twice Jolly’s margin of victory. Lucas Overby’s tally was nearly eight times the Libertarian Party of Florida’s voter registration.
I have long been a fan of Libertarians, and even publicly cheered when (quite a few years ago) two Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate lost by fewer votes than the Libertarian received — because I want the GOP to be inspired to become more libertarian. But in those cases, control of the chamber was not at stake.
It may be that changes in the behavior and policies of the Democratic Party are causing Libertarian candidates to take more Democrat votes than in the past, but I suspect that many Libertarian voters would still prefer a Republican majority to the anti-constitutional petty tyrants running the U.S. Senate today. So when it comes to Senate races in swing states, it is imperative to encourage Libertarians and others affiliated with minor parties to vote Republican. I say this as someone who has voted Libertarian in all but three presidential elections since I became eligible to vote. (Those were 1984, 1988, and 2012.)
On Wednesday morning, Speaker of the House John Boehner called out Democrats for trying to make the Florida election results sound less damaging than they are for the Dems’ November prospects: “Listen, I’ve stood here after losing some special elections. I’ve tried to put lipstick on a pig, and it’s still a pig. You can bet they’ll try to put lipstick on it today, but you all know what the facts are.”
When you really dig into it, the facts are even worse for the Democrats than they seem.
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