Less than 18 months after the 2012 election, the fulcrum of American politics rests once again in Central Florida.
Tuesday’s special election in Florida’s 13th congressional district is a big deal. It won’t just determine whether House Republicans have a majority of 17 or 18, it will be the first significant referendum on Barack Obama’s job performance and the Affordable Care Act in the president’s second term. The latest poll from PPP, a Democratic-leaning firm, shows the race within the margin of error. If Democrats gain the seat, it will validate those on the left who think the Affordable Care Act can be an electoral asset. But, if they fail and Republicans hold on, it will be hailed by the GOP as a good omen for their prospects of gaining the Senate in the fall.
The district is one of the swingiest in the country. It backed Obama twice, but George W. Bush in 2004, and is so packed with senior citizens that the average voter is somewhere between old and ancient. It takes up most of Pinellas County, Florida, the peninsula jutting into Tampa Bay that includes St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Largo. The district only excludes the most urban parts of St. Petersburg and lies just across a bridge from the beginning of the “crucial I-4 corridor,” which dominated political conversation among pundits during the 2012 election.
Tuesday’s special election was prompted by the death of longtime Republican congressman Bill Young who had represented the district since 1971. Young had made himself a political institution in Florida, using his seniority and service on the House Appropriations Committee (which he chaired from 1999-2005) to steer untold earmarks and federal dollars to his district. As a result, Young won re-election easily, even as the demographics of a once safely Republican district rapidly changed.
Now, with an open seat in a swing district, the seat has become a key barometer of the political climate in 2014 and set off a dogfight that will have national repercussions. The Democratic candidate Alex Sink, Florida’s former chief financial officer who narrowly lost the 2010 governor’s race, was recruited by the national Democratic Party to move to the district in order to run. Her opponent, David Jolly, is a lobbyist and former staffer for Young who had to win a heavily contested primary to win the GOP nomination.
The race, which has largely centered on healthcare — with Sink running as the defender of Medicare, and Jolly as the opponent of Obamacare—has resembled the World War I Battle of Verdun. Over $9 million has been spent by the two campaigns and outside groups combined, but to little effect. Instead, the race has stayed close throughout, resembling trench warfare as the candidates, neither of whom are particularly inspiring, scratch and claw for the slightest advantage. Both has inspired grumbles in their parties—Jolly, for his lackluster fundraising and campaign organization, and Sink for her weak-kneed message about Obamacare and overly scripted campaign.
The irony is that for all the election night drama, the race may have been decided weeks ago: More than half of all voters likely to cast a ballot have already done so. In fact, over 117,000 people have already voted absentee and among those, Republicans have an advantage of over 4,500. But that may not be enough of a margin. Prior to Election Day in both 2010 and 2012, the GOP had five digit advantages over Democrats in absentee ballots and still lost the district. But, in an off-year special election those patterns might not hold.
The margin of victory in the race, no matter who wins, will likely be small and skeptics may be wary of drawing conclusions from which candidate that a few thousand elderly swing voters were motivated to interrupt their days of spring training baseball and meals at Denny’s to cast a ballot for. But overall, it still matters.
Florida’s 13th is the ultimate swing district and will be the only time voters cast a ballot in such a purple district before November. And, while polls may be helpful barometers, an election is the only time voters have to make a meaningful choice. They can dodge or prevaricate or just hang up when dealing with a voice on the phone. But, in the privacy of a voting booth, they don’t have that option. Florida voters will be forced to make a decision and their choice will help shape the narrative of the 2014 election for the months to come.