TALLAHASSEE -- The budget shutdown that wounded the Republican brand last week also inflicted pain on the GOP in Florida: The party lost a seat held for decades by Republicans, and Gov. Rick Scott was hit with a hurdle to his reelection strategy.
The governor has spent the last six months distancing himself from his February decision to embrace taking $51 billion from the federal government to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and the disastrous enrollment rollout appeared to help Republicans keep the issue from returning in the next legislative session.
That might have been easy if Republican Bill Gunter had won last Tuesday’s House District 36 race. Instead, the Pasco County seat was won by Amanda Murphy, a Democrat and political newcomer with impeccable timing.
The governor stayed away from the race, as polls showed his popularity in the district was painfully low. But, while special elections are rarely bellwethers in Florida, the results suggest that among a significant slice of the electorate — especially independents — support for the Affordable Care Act can be a winning message. That’s a troubling sign for Scott, who remains strongly opposed to Obamacare, though he supports taking the federal money.
“What it means in 2014 is the issue of Obamacare is going to be front and center during the legislative session. It’s on everybody’s minds,” said Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, the head of the House committee on healthcare reform and architect of that chamber’s hard-line opposition to Medicaid expansion.
Gunter, 43, a Presbyterian minister, was the hand-picked candidate of House Republican leaders and came out forcefully against taking federal money to expand Medicaid. He drew more Republican voters than Murphy drew Democrats, but independents, and moderates who crossed party lines, gave her the victory margin.
Murphy was outspent three to one, yet won on the force of an endorsement from former Rep. Mike Fasano, the populist Republican whom she replaces in the swing district. He praised her message of moderation on healthcare reform and education and called Murphy the “independent voice” that would protect “the little gal and little guy.”
It was the kind of bipartisan cooperation that disgusted voters weren’t hearing from Washington. Murphy won by just over 300 votes. She also did something Democrats in Florida had not done before — defeat a candidate who turned out more Republicans than Democrats.
Corcoran, who is slated to become House speaker in 2016, is conducting a “forensic audit” and a post-election poll to analyze the District 36 results. He said he expects they will show that while Fasano’s endorsement helped Murphy with independent voters, Gunter won voters over age 60 across the board.
For Democrats, the lesson learned last week went beyond healthcare and offered clues for the governor’s race.
Murphy, 43, a financial advisor, reached independents and moderate Republicans by talking about healthcare and the governor’s policies on property insurance and education, said Christian Ulvert, the Democrat’s political director. “We learned how to use a governor who is unpopular and who is on the wrong side of policies for a lot of families and used it to open up a conversation with independents.”