Column: Did Obamacare Sink Democrats in Florida’s Special Election?
Welcome to the first Republican victory of 2014, which should make Democrats very, very worried.
In a race to fill the House seat of the late Republican Bill Young, David Jolly, a Washington lobbyist and former Congressional staffer, beat Alex Sink, the state’s former treasurer, who also lost a close race for governor to Rick Scott in 2010.
Of course, a special election in a swing district in a swing state will be held to mean more than it does. But with few other tea leaves to examine, this cup yields a lot to worry about for the David Pryors, Mark Udalls and Jeanne Shaheens of the Senate. Here’s a so-so Republican lobbyist who ran a weak campaign that frustrated the national party against an A-plus Democrat who’d previously prevailed in the district in a statewide race. Yet he won by 48.5 to 46.6, according to The Associated Press.
So how much of a drag was President Barack Obama? Did Obamacare sink Sink? The answer to the first is some (Obama has sunk in popularity since his win in Florida in 2012). And on the second, yes, Obamacare really hurt. Sink slightly outspent Jolly, but of his $4 million-plus much went to attacks on the Affordable Care Act, its rocky rollout, its higher premiums, its various other maladies. And Jolly was clear what he would do. While Sink said she would go to Washington to fix Obamacare, Jolly, channeling Washington Republicans, harped on the promise that he would go there to repeal it.
Despite the national reverberations, it was still a local race. In a non-presidential, low-turnout election, white retirees can carry the day. And Jolly had some intangibles of his own, such as sentiment, as unlikely as it may seem that any human emotion could play a part in our hyperpartisan, over- moneyed, activist-dominated House elections. Young was much beloved during his nearly 40 years representing Pinellas County. Jolly got his start in Washington working for Young, and Young’s son campaigned for him. Casting a vote for Jolly, especially among senior citizens, felt like honoring the memory of Young.
On personality, Sink harped on Jolly being a lobbyist. Yet as she is a member of another maligned group, bankers, it was a distinction that didn’t have much sway. The candidates both fudged on the other big issue in the race, flood insurance (Pinellas County, which includes St. Petersburg, is on the Gulf of Mexico). Voters have been soaked with huge increases in premiums, which national Republicans argue should be market-based, not federally subsidized. Sink and Jolly kicked the can down the road, saying any premium increases should be delayed while state and federal officials look for a way to fix the program.
If Democrats can’t win with a candidate like Sink, where where can they win? She was better known than Jolly and had crossover appeal he lacked. A libertarian running siphoned votes from the Republican. Sink was a much better fundraiser. Having run before, she didn’t make his rookie mistakes. Obama had carried the district twice.
It looks as if it could be a rocky road for Democrats in 2014. There was never a chance Democrats would take back the House. If Obamacare is the killer issue Republicans have been predicting — and Florida’s 13th shows it can be — Democrats should be more worried today that they could lose the Senate.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.