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Florida's special election wasn’t a bellwether; it was an Obamacare messaging test

Republican David Jolly defeated Democrat Alex Sink Tuesday.

Chris Moody
Yahoo News
FILE - In this Nov. 23, 2013, file photo Republican David Jolly thanks supporters during a campaign rally in Indian Rocks Beach, Fla. Jolly is a candidate in the GOP primary for a special election to succeed the late Republican Rep. Bill Young, who died last month. Obamacare is on the ballot in a big way in a competitive House race in Florida that offers a preview of the nationwide campaign for Congress this fall. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius, File)
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With a few exceptions, the national implications of House special elections are almost always overblown, hyped by partisans and over-analyzed by the media. The victory Tuesday of Republican David Jolly over Democrat Alex Sink in Florida’s thirteenth congressional district wasn't an exception, but it served as a test-case messaging gurus on both sides of the aisle can use to inform future contests.

The GOP used the race to test how best to pummel Democrats with anti-Obamacare messaging. Democrats aggressively worked to place one of their own in a seat that has been filled by a Republican since the Nixon Era.

Republicans see the victory as a clue to how messaging against Obamacare—and candidates who support it—can work in November. Republicans filled the airways with anti-Sink ads that attempt to tie her to the law, which she supported.

Most voters in the district are registered as Republicans, but they aren’t reliably so. Despite consistently re-electing Republicans to the House, a majority in the thirteenth congressional district in Florida voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012, and they supported Sink when she ran for governor in 2010. Far from being solid red, Florida thirteeners are blue-curious. Which is exactly why Republicans were so triumphant about the victory Tuesday.

“Alex Sink could not unhook herself from the sinking ship the Democrats are steering,” said Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, Tuesday night. “If a challenger with a $1.5 million cash advantage can’t win in a district President Obama won twice, where can Democrats win?”

Vulnerable Democratic incumbents can look to Sink’s example for lessons on how they should combat Republican attack ads over Obamacare. Although Sink supported the law, she had the luxury of having never actually voted for it. (That's assuming that Obamacare is a liability for Democrats, which is something that actually depends on the district.) Nor was she in Congress when House Republicans offered Democrats dozens of chances to repeal the law. Perhaps voters don’t make the distinction--or care--but incumbent Democrats with years of votes defending the law offer Republican ad-makers more material to work with than Sink did in the Florida-13 race.

That alone should worry red state Democrats.

As a general rule, however, House special elections rarely serve as strong indicators for future contests — especially if they are midterm ones. California Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray's victory in a 2006 House special election was followed by a general election that November that was devastating for Republicans. They lost 30 seats in the House and six in the Senate. In 2010, two Democrats and three Republicans won pre-November special elections. Slight edge to the Republicans — but not a mix that clearly forecast that Republicans would come roaring back in the general, netting more than 60 seats.

Also at play is the fact that special elections rarely see the amount of voter turnout that regular contests do, so the number of voters who went the polls on Tuesday isn't necessarily a clue of how red or blue any other district will be in a November election. In fact, Democrats believe they’ll see a stronger showing on their side in November. “Democrats will fight for FL-13 in the midterm, when the electorate is far less heavily tilted toward Republicans,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel said in a statement.

The district at play, which has a robust concentration of older voters, stretches along part of Florida’s peninsular west coast, including Clearwater and St. Petersburg. The seat was left open when Bill Young died last October after serving nearly 40 years in office. Over his four decades in Congress, Young’s major selling point was not that he was a Reaganite reformer, but that he could expertly secure taxpayer dollars for the people of his district. For six years, he was the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, one of the most sought-after posts in Congress and one that gives its leader wide authority over federal dollars.

That Young's constituents re-elected him year after year is not so much a testament to his conservative principles as it was thanks for bringing home the bacon. Republicans apparently realized this over the course of the race, when they removed “conservative” from one television ad campaign that promoted Jolly. The first iteration described Jolly as “a conservative in the tradition of Bill Young,” while the second merely introduced him as “David Jolly for Congress. In the tradition of Bill Young.” Democrats, meanwhile, framed Jolly as a Washington insider because of his career as a lobbyist, although it obviously wasn’t enough to defeat him.

While jubilant about the results, some on the right were still careful not to frame the election as a “bellwether.”

“If Sink wins, it’s NOT a test on Obamacare, for 10000x time,” wrote Rick Wilson, a Tampa-based Republican political consultant, on Twitter the morning before the election results were in.

Regardless, one’s thing’s for sure: To the victor go the bragging rights. In the tedious and sometimes unforgiving game of politics, sometimes rubbing a loss in the face of your opponent is reason enough for glee.

After the election, Wilson stuck to his analysis, but couldn’t help but do a little gloating: “It's not a bellwether,” he tweeted, “but it is a beatin'.”

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