By Alexandra Jaffe
Republican David Jolly defeated Democrat Alex Sink in the special election to fill Florida’s 13th district on Tuesday night, delivering a stinging blow to Democrats that underscores their vulnerability to ObamaCare attacks.
With all precincts reporting, Jolly topped Sink 48.4 percent to 46.5 percent, winning by 3,417 votes. Libertarian Lucas Overby took nearly 5 percent of the vote.
Sink’s loss in the race to succeed the late Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) was seen by Republicans as evidence the political winds are blowing hard against Democrats in their uphill pursuit of the 17 seats they’ll need to take back the House.
“Tonight, one of Nancy Pelosi’s most prized candidates was ultimately brought down because of her unwavering support for ObamaCare, and that should be a loud warning for other Democrats running coast to coast,” National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden (Ore.) said in a statement.
A swing district held by a Republican but won by President Obama in 2012, Florida’s 13th district is exactly the playing field Democrats need to win in this cycle to be successful. Democrats pointed out that the special election turnout would always trend GOP, and they downplayed their loss on Tuesday evening.
“Democrats will fight for FL-13 in the midterm, when the electorate is far less heavily tilted toward Republicans. Despite those millions from Republican outside groups, they underperformed because the only message they offered voters – repealing the ACA – is out of touch and failed to bring them even close to their historically wide margins,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.).
Sink said in a statement that she had congratulated Jolly and wished him “the best success” in representing the district in Congress.
She said that while the outcome wasn’t what she had hoped, she’s “proud of the race we have run,” and grateful to her supporters — and left the door open to future political activity, though she gave no indication of what that might be.
“My life has always been shaped by a deep commitment to service and problem solving, and I look forward to finding new ways and new avenues to continue practicing these values in pursuit of doing good for our community, our state and our country,” she said.
While Democrats are not expected to contend for the House majority, the loss will add to the party’s worries about losing the Senate.
And it provided proof for Republicans that their current strategy — to hammer vulnerable Democrats and Democratic candidates on the healthcare law — remains sound. Jolly had been seen as a flawed candidate, so his victory will only increase the GOP’s confidence in November.
Groups backing Jolly spent $4.9 million on television, mail and web attacks hammering that message home.
“Canceled health plans, higher premiums, Medicare cuts, people losing their doctors, a disaster for families and seniors,” says the narrator in one ad hitting Sink, launched by the Chamber of Commerce.
Democratic groups fought back, however, spending $3.7 million on the race to make their own argument on the health care law and hammer Jolly for his lobbying background and issues important to senior voters, like Social Security.
Sink’s rebuttal on the health care law is one Democrats believe will translate in races nationwide: They’re the party that wants to fix the law, rather than repeal it and go back to the lawlessness of the health care system before reform.
They point to polling that shows a majority of Americans would prefer lawmakers fix the law rather than throw it out entirely as evidence they’re on the right side of the issue.
But Jolly’s win may indicate that message may not be enough to answer Republican attacks.
Still, even as Republicans paint the race as a bellwether for their chances in other competitive districts this cycle, unique circumstances in Florida’s 13th make it an imperfect testing ground for the parties’ respective narratives.
The special election electorate was long expected to heavily favor Republicans, which Democrats were pointing to before Election Day as evidence of the difficult task they faced. Though the district went for Obama in 2008 and 2012, it did so narrowly, and was held for three decades by the late Rep. Bill Young (R ).
And Sink, though considered a top-tier candidate, was also known for her difficulty with retail campaigning and an occasional awkwardness in answering unscripted questions that more than once drew her campaign off-message.
It’s hard to see Jolly’s win as less than evidence that Democrats still face a turnout problem and difficulties with ObamaCare this cycle, however, as he was a deeply flawed candidate with a nightmare background as a lobbyist that made easy fodder for Democratic attack ads.
The race also appears to have been a testing ground for new rules and tactics from Republican groups, as much as it was one for the respective parties’ messages.
The Republican National Committee issued a release touting its coordination with the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Florida GOP, outlining a number of new tech and data tools it implemented in the race, including a “new voter scoring tool to find the right voters,” a “new canvassing app to gather data” and a new interface that allowed volunteers to share data in real time.
RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said those tools are all things “we will be replicating across the country in Senate races” this cycle.
Republicans had notorious trouble keeping up with President Obama’s groundbreaking tech and data operation in the 2012 elections, and they’ve pledged to catch up to Democrats’ advantage on that front in time for 2016.
It’s unclear how instrumental those new data tools were in delivering a win to Jolly.
—This post was updated at 8:45 p.m.