Politics

A Jolly Good Strategy for the GOP

Florida's special election offers plenty of lessons.

By 4.10.14

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The GOP has lagged behind Democrats in strategy, focus, and effectiveness for much of the past six years. At almost every turn, it’s seemed Republicans could not come together and tell their story. 

That changed last month when Republican David Jolly defeated Democrat Alex Sink by two points in a closely contested special election for Florida's 13th Congressional District. The election was more than a good night; it was a turning of the tide. In Jolly’s victory, Republicans found an effective new strategy for the future that used—as the saying goes—something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.

Something Old and Something New

The four-year-old Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare, has become political kryptonite. The strong dislike for the law has continued to drive down the president’s approval ratings. Obama made no campaign ads or visits to support Sink. However, while Sink’s mere affiliation with Obamacare hurt her chances, it was not the sole cause of her defeat.

Jolly did not win just by making the special election a referendum on Obamacare. Rather, his campaign wisely took the unpopular law and made it an inherently personal issue with the voters of the district. The pain of the law’s implementation is having negative effects on everyday voters across Florida. Jolly never missed an opportunity to talk about our freedoms to choose our doctors and health care coverage. Older voters distrust the siphoning of Medicare funds to support Obamacare, and younger voters feel betrayed since the promise of lower costs has not materialized. 

Republicans nationwide must convincingly illustrate how Obamacare negatively impacts voters. Thus, while David Jolly’s specific arguments may not prove effective in Arkansas or North Carolina, his overall strategy can certainly help Tom Cotton and whoever the GOP selects to face off against Kay Hagan in November. Democratic Senators Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) can both be blamed for casting the decisive sixtieth vote allowing Obamacare to pass. But in order to unseat their incumbent opponents, their Republican challengers must demonstrate how Obamacare negatively impacts Arkansans and North Carolinians, respectively. Back in Florida, the governor’s race may be decided on Rick Scott’s ability to personalize the negative impacts of the health law on the diverse electorate versus Charlie Crist’s defense of his unconditional support of the Affordable Care Act.

Something Borrowed

The Jolly campaign borrowed a page out of the Democrat playbook. Like Democrats who kept millions of loyal Hillary voters in the Obama camp, Jolly managed to bridge the gap between the Tea Party and establishment Republicans. The lesson here is that the unified party usually wins.

Jolly was not the first choice of many Washington Republicans, but the GOP ultimately rallied around its candidate. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Congressman Paul Ryan, and Senator Rand Paul actively supported the Jolly campaign. This signals a new unity within the GOP. If it proves to be real and lasting, Republicans stand a much better chance of recapturing the Senate and the White House.

As for Democrats, Obamacare is the new orphan as many Democrats seek shelter from voter fallout, but the cracks within the party go deeper. The new progressives, led by the likes of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, are pushing the party further and further to the left. Mr. de Blasio’s recent attacks on charter schools puts this wing of the Democratic Party in direct opposition to its traditional liberal wing, as well as many of its core constituencies. Many progressives are actually disappointed with the Obama administration for not going far enough. As Obama’s influence wanes and progressives seek greater control, will Democrats totally cede the middle?

The Republican Party must be ready to fully back the nominees elected by the people from day one. While rising star Tom Cotton is everybody’s darling in Arkansas, the GOP may not get its first choice in North Carolina, where eight candidates are competing in a primary to face off against incumbent Senator Kay Hagan. Hagan is vulnerable and certainly beatable, but it is imperative that the party coalesces behind whoever emerges as the Republican nominee, much like the GOP did with now-Congressman David Jolly. With the economy in Florida strong and growing under Governor Scott, Republicans must stay true to Scott and avoid being lured by former Republican-turned-Democrat Crist.

Something Blue

In 2012 the Democrats absolutely trounced the GOP when it came to incorporating technology in elections. Many experts were of the opinion that the technological gap between the parties was so great that Democrats would have a strong edge for at least the next few cycles. For many years in Florida, Republicans have enjoyed an overwhelming comparative advantage regarding state party organization, but the Democrats' advantage technology-wise closed that gap.

The Republican Party has been working aggressively on this issue and has made significant technological advancements. The Jolly race was the test run of the RNC’s new application to assist their volunteer workers with real-time information on issues of local interest. This was a much faster and more accurate system than had been used in the past. The key was micro-targeting and speed. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus flatly stated that his party’s advancements in tech helped Jolly win. And he is right.

Going forward, Priebus touted continued efforts with the opening of Para Bellum Labs in Silicon Valley—a Republican initiative conceived to develop further technology tools. Republican field staffers across the country are loaded with precise data to allow them to engage specific communities with any analysis they need, including party affiliation, gender, race, and age. The technology battle is now engaged.

All of this suggests that while Democrats have opened the door with failed policy and a break of ranks with a push to the left, the GOP has recognized they need to think more strategically and act with unity. These trends will determine the balance of power in both Washington and Florida.

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About the Author

Ed Pozzuoli is the President of Tripp Scott law firm in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. He served as the Co-Chair of Jeb Bush for Governor Campaign and Regional Chair for the Rudy Giuliani Presidential Campaign.