Tuesday night’s special election in Florida should be a serious scare for Democrats who worry that Obamacare will be a major burden for their party in 2014. Despite recruiting favored candidate Alex Sink, outspending Republicans, and utilizing turnout tools to help motivate reliable voters, Democrats still lost to Republican lobbyist David Jolly—and it wasn’t particularly close.
The Republican tool: lots of advertisements hitting Sink over Obamacare, even though she wasn’t even in Congress to vote for it. Sink’s response was from the Democratic playbook: Call for fixes, but hit her opponent for supporting repeal. Sink won 46 percent of the vote, 2 points behind Jolly and 4 points below President Obama’s 2012 total in the district.
Special elections don’t necessarily predict the November elections, but this race in a bellwether Florida district that both parties aggressively contested comes as close as possible to a November test run for both parties. Democrats worked to clear the field for Sink, an unsuccessful 2010 gubernatorial nominee, while Republicans missed out on their leading recruits, settling for Jolly, a lobbyist who once worked for Rep. Bill Young, the late congressman whose 13th District vacancy Jolly will fill. Sink outspent Jolly, but the Republican was able to close the financial gap with the help of outside groups. All told, Democrats held a $5.4 million to $4.5 million spending advantage.
“She’s known as a tough independent businesswoman who knows how to get things done, yet [her campaign] seemed to run a more process-oriented message,” said one Democratic operative involved with the Sink campaign. “I wonder if they ever really thought they could lose.”
The results are a clear warning sign to Senate Democrats, whose majority is threatened thanks to a Republican-friendly map and a national environment that’s tilted in the GOP’s favor. At least seven Democratic-held Senate seats are being contested in states more conservative than the Florida House battleground. Conservative groups, led by Americans for Prosperity, are already airing ads blasting Democratic senators for their support of Obamacare, and their attacks have negatively impacted the incumbents’ poll numbers.