The Florida special election Tuesday was supposed to be an ideal chance for Democrats to show that 2014 isn’t a lost year. Instead, they were dealt another body blow, further weakening their prospects for this year’s midterms.
Democrats couldn’t have asked for a more golden opportunity.
They had the right candidate matchup: Alex Sink, a respected former statewide official who nearly won the governorship in 2010, up against a former lobbyist, Republican David Jolly. They had the right district: A swing region of Florida that appeared poised to elect a Democrat after more than four decades of GOP representation. And they certainly had the money: In a year of staggering GOP spending, Sink far outraised her opponent and got nearly $4 million in help from outside Democratic groups.
In the end, it wasn’t enough. Jolly won by 3,456 votes. And he did it by playing a hand Republicans across the country are expected to follow: Run as an opponent to the president’s unpopular health care law and the Democrat as for it.
Democrats are scrambling to launch a counteroffensive — and if they don’t come up with one fast, Tuesday’s loss could foreshadow a brutal year for the party at the ballot box this fall.
Some Democrats tried their best to downplay the loss. New York Rep. Steve Israel, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, sent out a statement noting that Sink “came closer to victory in a historically Republican district than any Democrat has in decades.”
Others stressed that wasn’t the way to go.
(Florida special election results)
“Dems should not try to spin this loss,” Paul Begala, a onetime top political aide to former President Bill Clinton, wrote on Twitter. “We have to redouble our efforts for 2014.”
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.”
(POLITICO's full coverage of the 2014 midterm elections)
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.
Following Sink’s loss, some Democrats said they’re rethinking their approach to combating the GOP’s Obamacare-centered assault. Sink’s nuanced “fix it, don’t repeal it” message was one that the national Democratic Party is urging many candidates to embrace, but it may have been drowned out by the avalanche of loud Republican attacks.
One Democratic operative predicted that candidates would now find it safer to flat-out state their opposition to Obamacare, saying that, “It’s gonna be tough to get Democrats to support the Affordable Care Act this cycle now with the standard ‘fix the good, get rid of the bad’ schtick.’”
What’s particularly troubling for Democrats about the outcome is that they were facing a particularly flawed opponent in Jolly, a first-time candidate and former Washington lobbyist with a taste for pinstriped suits. In many other House and Senate races, Democrats are hopeful that problematic Republican candidates give them openings in a political environment that’s turned decidedly against them.
But Jolly’s win suggests that may be wishful thinking.
“In this environment, the only thing Democrats can do is hope for Republican opponents who come from professions even more unpopular than Washington lobbyists, and I’m not aware of any tow-truck drivers on the GOP ticket this year,” said Andy Sere, a GOP consultant.
no fools on our ticket