ST. PETERSBURG — Democrat Alex Sink’s 1.8-point loss to Republican David Jolly in the Congressional District 13 race was not a symbol of what’s to come in November, but a series of lessons learned, national Democrats said the morning after the special election.
Republicans shook their heads and warned against “spin.”
Jolly won with 48.43 percent and 89,099 votes in the election Tuesday to replace C.W. Bill Young, who died in October. Sink took 46.55 percent and 85,642 votes, a difference of 3,475 votes. Libertarian Lucas Overby had 4.83 percent and 8,893 votes.
Political junkies and operatives Wednesday explored factors that made the election shake out the way it did and what it means nationally — and in District 13, where Jolly has to re-run to keep his seat — going into the November midterms.
“Our competitive battlefield today, the day after the special, is exactly what our competitive battlefield was the day before the election,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel said. “This doesn’t shape it at all. In fact, this district will be in play in November. I can guarantee that.”
Israel called Sink an “extraordinary candidate” and said he hopes she will run for the seat again. He attributed the loss to the district’s higher Republican turnout in special elections and said Democrats have another shot in November.
“I believe that had this race been in November instead of March, Alex Sink would be Congresswoman Alex Sink,” he said. “Which is why I am so hopeful that she is going to run.”
Republicans said he’s most certainly being overly optimistic.
The race hinged in part on the unpopularity of the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” some said.
“Clearly Obamacare was the 600-pound elephant in the room,” said Darryl Paulson, a University of South Florida professor emeritus of political science. “I think that had a real big influence on how voters responded to the candidates because what you’re seeing in the polls is that voters are increasingly opposed to Obamacare.”
Through Sink, Democrats tried to defend the law, or at least aspects of it, such as ending the prescription drug doughnut hole for seniors, as well as the practice of denying coverage for pre-existing conditions. Republicans pointed out Sink and her supporters argued their points in a district President Barack Obama twice won and Sink herself took in two statewide races.
“And they failed,” said Katie Prill, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “They still haven’t figured out how to defend themselves on the President’s signature success, which is Obamacare.”
It may impact the way Democratic campaigns are run in the fall.
“I would imagine that there are a lot of Democratic candidates across the country who are going to be looking at these results,” Paulson said. “And they are going to be very nervous and also gun-shy about overwhelmingly supporting Obamacare.”
He warned against pointing to any single reason for Jolly’s victory over Sink.
More progressive Democrats said special elections are about appealing to the base, but the moderate Sink did the opposite, reaching out to independents and moderate Republicans.
That the race was framed in many ways as a generic referendum on one of the country’s most divisive issues may have turned off a lot of voters, especially younger potential Democratic voters.
“They put all their eggs in the TV, direct mail and robocall baskets. It was like a cookie-cutter type of TV ad campaign that just looked like an extension of the presidential election; negative, negative, negative,” said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor. “And as I say many, many times, two negatives don’t make a positive in terms of instilling somebody’s desire to go vote, especially if you’re young.”
Democrats also conducted their usual get-out-the-vote effort, and an army of volunteers knocked on doors and called people. Democrat and independent voters reported getting multiple calls a day leading up to the special election.
“You can have too much contact,” MacManus said. “I hear people talking about it, and they say it insults their intelligence. They know there’s a race. They know the Democratic candidate. They know they need to vote.”
There is no word yet on whether Sink will choose to run again, or if Jessica Ehrlich — the former District 13 candidate whom some say national Democrats pushed out of the running to make room for Sink — will step in.
Jolly, who gets sworn in today, already faces a primary opponent. Nick Zoller, a Republican consultant who announced he would run for the seat upon Young’s retirement and then withdrew, announced Tuesday he will challenge Jolly in the August primary.