Jack Kelly: Special election offers bad news for Democrats

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The special election last Tuesday for a House seat in Florida is a harbinger of things to come, say Republicans, because the Republican won.

It’s no big deal, say Democrats, because the Democrat didn’t.

Republicans have an edge in voter registration (37 percent to 34.6 percent) in the district, mostly Pinellas county north of St. Petersburg.

Rep. C.W. “Bill” Young, who represented the area from 1971 until his death in October, was a Republican.

But President Barack Obama won the 13th District narrowly in 2008 and 2012.

So did Alex Sink, the Democratic candidate for governor in 2010, in her losing bid that year.

Ms. Sink was the Democratic candidate in the special election. The Republican was David Jolly, a Washington lobbyist who had been an aide to Rep. Young.

Ms. Sink was well known, Mr. Jolly unknown.

“She ran a hyper-disciplined campaign with a far more robust get-out-the-vote effort than Republicans,” said Adam Smith, political editor of the Tampa Times.

“A half-dozen Washington Republicans have described Jolly’s campaign...as a Keystone Cops operation, marked by inept fundraising...and the poor optics of a just-divorced, 41-year-old candidate accompanied on the campaign trail by a girlfriend 14 years his junior,” Politico reported

March 7.

Ms. Sink led by 7 and 9 percentage points in polls in mid-February, by 3 in a poll the day before the election.

But when the votes were counted, Mr. Jolly had 48.43 percent, Ms. Sink 46.55 percent.

Mr. Jolly won despite the presence in the race of a Libertarian candidate, who drew 4.83 percent of the vote.

He won because outside groups spent a ton of money on ads attacking Ms. Sink, Democrats said.

That’s true.

But Democrats and their allies spent more — $6.4 million to $6.3 million for Republicans and their allies — estimated Michael Beckel of the Center for Public Integrity.

One word explains why Alex Sink lost a race she should have won, but Democrats were loathe to utter it.

It wasn’t Obamacare that sank Sink, said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. It was low voter turnout.

In a low turnout election, the superior Democrat get-out-the-vote operation should have given Ms. Sink an edge.

Turnout in Florida for the general election in 2012 averaged 63.5 percent. But turnout in Florida for the 2010 midterm elections was only 41.8 percent. Turnout in the special election (40.01 percent) was very close to that.

It was unusually high for a special election. Only 15.2 percent voted in a special election for Congress in Fort Meyers in 2010.

Ms. Sink lost because Republicans flocked to the polls to vote against Obamacare, said her pollster, Geoff Garin.

Obamacare figures to be a bigger issue elsewhere. Seniors — who are more concerned about Medicare — comprise 22 percent of district residents. The national average is 13 percent.

There were other issues, but they don’t bode well for Democrats.

Most seniors don’t know yet about the cuts in Medicare Advantage to fund Obamacare. They won’t be pleased when they do.

Environmental groups spent lots on an ad attacking Mr. Jolly for his skepticism about “climate change,” an issue “important” to 69 percent of voters in the district, “very important” to 44 percent, according to PPP’s pre-election poll.

“If there is any congressional district in America where Democrats should theoretically get the most bang for their buck selling global warming alarmism, Florida District 13 should be it,” said district resident James Taylor, environmental analyst for the Heartland Institute.

But the ads had no discernible effect on the outcome.

Neither did ads attacking Mr. Jolly for supporting restrictions on abortion.

They have a “messaging” problem on Obamacare, and don’t know what to do about it, Democrats privately concede.

Most plan to say they support changes, but be vague about what they might be, in the hopes that will be enough to mollify voters.

That strategy didn’t work for Alex Sink, who wasn’t burdened with having voted to enact Obamacare.

There’ll be lots more Obamacare news in the next few months, none of it good.

Democrats don’t have a messaging problem.

They have an Obamacare problem.

If they keep trying to spin it rather than fix it, they’re headed for an epic thrashing Nov. 4.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Pittsburgh Press and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio.

First Published March 17, 2014 3:43 PM

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