by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
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. …
… 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.
One of the key questions in the race was whether a “fix, don’t repeal” message would resonate with voters dissatisfied with the health care law but unwilling to give up on it. The verdict is incomplete, but it’s an early sign the depth of anger over Obamacare. Democrats are hoping for higher turnout in the November midterms, but core Democratic groups usually show up in lower numbers in off-year elections, too.
“Alex Sink followed the Democrat playbook to the tee and she couldn’t escape the weight of Obamacare in even an Obama district,” National Republican Congressional Committee Executive Director Liesl Hickey told National Journal.
Another key test in this race is whether flawed Republican candidates can cost the party seats in otherwise-winnable races. Democrats are hoping to make challenging Senate races a referendum between likable incumbents and undefined challengers in red-state races in Louisiana, North Carolina, and even Arkansas with freshman Rep. Tom Cotton. Jolly’s background was about as unfavorable as it gets—a Washington influence-peddler. That was the theme of attacks from Sink and other Democratic outside groups. It’s only one race, but it’s a sign that the national environment could trump the micro-advantages battle-tested incumbents bring to the table.