To Sink Or To Be Jolly? Florida-13,Obamacare, and November
This week, a much awaited and closely watched election was held in Florida’s 13th Congressional district. It was for the seat left open by the death of longtime Republican incumbent Congressman Bill Young who died last October at the age of 83. He had represented the St. Petersburg area for 43 years. In the race to succeed him, a nip’n’tuck affair that went down to the wire for months, Republican David Jolly defeated Democrat Alex Sink in a win widely interpreted as a victory for Republicans seeking to influence public opinion on Obamacare.
The GOP is claiming that Jolly’s win was a referendum on Obamacare and it’s not entirely an incorrect assumption. Party pooh-bahs are rightfully happy as well they should be. At the very least, it is a psychological victory because it further emboldens their troops and interest groups while truly demoralizing Democrats. That much is indisputable. But to call it a day on that, for now and for November, is wishful thinking at its best. Allow me to break taht down in reason which is after all, one thing that tends to get lost in all of the attempts at spin and making one side seem unblemished.
Let’s look at what we do know. Alex Sink was a well-known, former State Insurance Commissioner and almost Governor who started the race with a lead of 15 percentage points in the polls. Her financial advantage over Jolly was mind-boggling. Jolly, meanwhile, struggled with staff hires and was tagged with wanting to privatize social security.
The first reason to be skeptical is because the election was exceedingly close. Alex Sink lost by fewer than 4,000 votes. Not 14,000. Not 40,000. 4,000. The result was 48.3—46.9% in a district that nationally, is as close to being even as any. President Obama carried Florida’s 13th Congressional district by a hair, 50%-49% in 2012 but the district sent Young to Congress faithfully and effortlessly since 1970. And Charlie Crist, the then-Governor seeking a Senate seat in 2010, took a win on his home turf even as he mustered less tahn 30% staterwide.
So when all is considered, the district fits my label “a tossup and then some” and it stayed that way until the end (I was waiting for a district on which to use that).
Second, despite Sink’s obvious advantages, she did not prove to be a good candidate. I won’t go so far as to say that her campaign skill made Martha Coakley look like a master strategist though there is irony in the fact that there were similarities invoklving baseball between the two candidates.
While Coakley bemoaned the folks who suggested she should be shaking hands with voters outside of Fenway Park in the cold, Sink took pleasure in attending a spring training ball game the day before the election. But beyond taht, Sink just wasn’t as adroit with retail politicking as she needed to be. She wasn’t thrilled with debating, turning down an invitation for a nationally televised debate with Chuck Todd. And when she did debate, she had a stiff demeanor and may have committed a gaffe by saying immigrants were necessary to “clean out hotel rooms or do our landscaping?
Now, some may rebut that by saying many incumbents often run lackluster, even careless campaigns but get by with their name recognition and money and that is true and that Sink, while not a technical incumbent, had all of the assets relating to one. But this was still a competitive race in a special election.
Which brings me to the next point. Special elections often see low turnout and this race was no exception. In fact, when Sink actually prevailed among the early voter turnout that saw about 5,000 more Republicans return ballots that Democrats, many on both sides thought she had won it. But then the Election Day turnout came in and the numbers proved so pitiful that Jolly won it by a large margin. In other words, Republicans showed up and Democrats didn’t.
There is also at least some evidence to suggest that issues relating to Sink’s residency took their toll. She had resided out of the district until shortly before deciding to run. At least a handful of voters quoted in the local press, some of whom voted for Ms. Sink, said it was issue. Was that a deciding factor in the minds of roughly 1,700 people (Sink’s loss was 3,456 votes)? Maybe not. But everything adds up.
Does this mean everything is hunky-dory with Obamacare? Anyone who thinks so is as fool-hardy as those who jump off the Brooklyn Bridge? It has indeed turned some voters against Democrats. But if Republicans think they will be able to run solely on that issue and come out ahead, I think they have another thing coming. In that vein, one positive for Democrats is that Sink’s loss may give them yet another wake-up call with messaging, etc. And there November is still eight months away.
What does this mean for November? Yes, Republicans have won a hard fought battle with about half of the troops showing up primarily over Obamacare. Will they win the war that will commence in November? I highly doubt a single voter in any of the battleground House races or in states such as Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, and Michigan where competitive senate races are brewing are going to even be thinking about what voters of Florida’s 13th Congressional district did eight months earlier.
If a mediocre campaigner can battle to a draw in a quintessential swing district with low-turnout amid a Republican running a single issue Obamacare campaign, then a sterling, battle tested Democrat should be able to do better in November when turnout, with many top-of-the-ticket races, will be much, much higher. And for Democrats who sit in swing states/districts or ones that only nominally lean that way, that can mean the difference between “Sinking” or coming out “Jolly.”