Politics

03.12.14

Despite Their Loss In Florida’s Special Election, Democrats Shouldn’t Panic Over November

While the defeat of Alex Sink in Florida’s special election Tuesday night may be embarrassing for Democrats, they shouldn’t panic and run away from the electoral benefits of Obamacare.

So here we go: Republicans—and, no doubt, the Koch Brothers—are crowing that David Jolly’s win over Alex Sink in the special election in Florida’s 13th Congressional District Tuesday proves that Obamacare is the death knell for Democrats this fall. Outside groups, led by the Kochs, pumped a few million into the district, largely hitting Sink over Obamacare, which she said needed to be improved although she still trumpeted its benefits for senior citizens.

Republicans will say more: that they had a flawed candidate in Jolly, a former lobbyist; that Barack Obama carried this district in 2012. The Republicans won’t say that Obama carried it over Mitt Romney by just 2 percent, and this is the very definition of a swing district. But both of these statements are factual, and Republicans will spin them hard today and tomorrow.

Most of all, Republican spin doctors will say this is a bellwether: The Democrats put loads of money and troops into Sink’s race, precisely to prove (in a winnable district) that 2014 wasn’t going to be a disaster for them. They still couldn’t win it, which, the GOP will say, just demonstrates what a bruisin’ Democrats are cruisin’ for this fall.

No denying, they might be right. For one thing, this was one of the few Republican-held House districts (held by lifer Bill Young, whose death necessitated this special) the Democrats had a shot at taking. So on that basis alone, it’s a blow to whatever remote shot Nancy Pelosi had of moving back into the Speaker’s office.

It would be absurd to deny that Obamacare, wasn’t a factor the race and maybe the crucial one. The outside groups went big on it, no doubt about that. But there were other issues in this race. Jolly attacked Sink for using a state plane to “get to a vacation in the Bahamas.” Politifact judged the Jolly ad half-true, but in congressional campaigns, half-true is usually true enough. The ad had bite, and that surely made some difference too. It seems to be the case that the lion’s share of the undecided swing voters broke for Jolly late in the game, and a pile of data suggests that swing voters care about good-government things like the use of state planes. Their minds were probably made up about Obamacare, so it’s not implausible that something else swung them.

But there’s no doubt that the issue going forward is going to be health care. What health-care-related lesson is each party going to take out of this? For the Republicans, it’s easy: push push push. And there’s reason for them to do so: Sink, remember, wasn’t in Congress; she didn’t even vote for the thing. Kay Hagan and Mary Landrieu and Mark Begich and all the other vulnerable Senate Democrats defending their seats this fall did.

The Democrats are likely to take, as they often do, the wrong lesson. They’ll want to run and hide. But they should look a little more closely. Sink was no warrior for Obamacare. Her campaign was a textbook exercise in trying to thread the needle (unsuccessfully). Does her loss mean that Democrats should run away from it?

The Democrats are likely to take, as they often do, the wrong lesson. They’ll want to run and hide. But they should look a little more closely.

I say no. Let’s watch how this result affects the Florida gubernatorial race for starters. Democrat Charlie Crist has been defending Obamacare—in terms of accepting the Medicaid money—far more aggressively than Sink did. Crist leads Republican Rick Scott in recent polls, by about seven points. Watch how hard Scott—who actually supported taking the Obamacare-Medicaid money for a short time—hits Crist on this point, and how Crist responds, and how the polls change, if they do. Rather than just getting the vapors from Sink’s loss, this is what Democrats nationally ought to be watching. If Crist’s lead shrinks, then Democrats really will run for the hills.

There’s other evidence out there in the world that Obamacare is a political disaster only if the Democrats don’t fight for it. The media didn’t write much last week about a very interesting WashPost-ABC poll result. The survey asked people if they’d be more or less likely to vote for a candidate who backed Obamacare. It came out less likely 36, more likely 34. That’s a margin of error tie, but it’s also a huge change from four months ago, when Republican opponents had a 16-point advantage in that realm. The new poll also reported that Americans said they trusted Democrats more on health care by 44 to 36 percent.

Perhaps the best evidence though that Obamacare wasn’t a real issue came from Jolly himself, who didn’t even mention the ACA in his victory speech. He told reporters later, “This was a closely run race, we know that. I don’t take a mandate from this.”

Just hours before Jolly’s victory on Tuesday night, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that 4.2 million people have signed up for health care under the ACA. By November, eight months from now, will statistics like this make more difference than what happened in Pinellas County Tuesday night? I remind you that in the one high-profile congressional special election held in the May, 2010, the Democrat won it—Mark Critz in Pennsylvania (Like Jolly, Critz was the annointed successor of a longtime incumbent as well).  Six month later, Democrats lost 63 seats in Congress. In other words, spring special elections shouldn’t be taken as harbingers.

They’re only harbingers if the losing party accepts them as harbingers. The Republicans laughed off the Critz win, sold it to the media as something that didn’t matter for November, and kept on saying they were going to win 75 seats. The Democrats need to be similarly nonchalant about this one. It’s an embarrassing loss but it’s not the end of the world, unless Democrats think it is..