Republicans' CD13 win gives Florida Democrats a bad case of déjà vu

03/12/2014 11:46 AM

03/12/2014 3:11 PM

It happened again.

Another midterm election year. Another Democratic loss. Another Republican win.

This time, the scene was Tuesday’s special election in the St. Petersburg-based 13th Congressional District, where Republican David Jolly beat Democrat Alex Sink by 1.9 percentage points.

Jolly’s win came at a crucial time for the Republican Party of Florida. It watched Democrats gain legislative and congressional seats in 2012, when President Barack Obama won the nation’s largest swing state for the second time.

But without Obama on the ticket, something weird happens to the Florida Democratic Party and its candidates in big midterm elections: They lose swing races.

Though this was a special election in a midterm year, the pattern of apathetic Democratic voters has been a consistent problem for the party.

“Special elections are not an indicator of the future,” U.S. Rep. Steve Israel of New York, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair, said Wednesday morning, lamenting the close loss.

“Special elections are not predictive, they are instructive,” he said, adding that Democrats need to work on “modeling, persuasion messages.”

Sink’s pollster Geoff Garin noted that Republicans were more motivated to vote about Obamacare — a major issue in the race — than were Democrats. He said a major problem was that Democrats dropped off at a greater rate than Republicans in a district where 49,000 fewer people voted than in the 2010 midterms.

So while the race might not be predictive, it sure sounds familiar.

After 2008, Obama swept Florida and Democrats surged. Then he stumbled on Obamacare. Democrats then lost big in 2010. Rick Scott became governor, beating Sink narrowly.

The pattern looks eerily familiar. Obama won again in 2012. Then he stumbled on Obamacare again and then . . . ?

One of the masterminds of Jolly’s win, Republican political consultant Marc Reichelderfer, said Democrats are fooling themselves if they don’t think Obamacare is toxic.

Not only does the Affordable Care Act motivate Republicans while doing little to inspire Democrats, Reichelderfer said people remember Obama’s false promises about it — such as the whopper that people could keep their health-insurance plans if they liked them.

“It’s a sham,” Reichelderfer said. “People don’t like being lied to.”

Sink’s campaign acknowledged Obamacare was a problem and said it “neutralized” the Jolly campaign’s attack by pointing out that most people want to keep the law and fix it.

But there’s no clear evidence that election boiled down to a referendum on Obamacare.

It was a referendum on turnout.

CD13 isn’t like the rest of Florida in two big respects: It’s heavily white, and registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by about 3 percentage points. A Democratic loss by 2 points certainly isn’t unexpected. This was a coin-toss election.

But it’s still a loss for Democrats and a win for Republicans who wanted to hang onto the seat that became open after the death of Rep. C.W. Bill Young.

Statewide, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 4 points, or about 485,000 voters right now. Yet every one of the four statewide offices based in Tallahassee is controlled by a Republican.

Democrats seem to muster the energy to come out in droves in presidential election years.

Then Democrats disproportionately stay home two years later. Republicans get revenge.

Jolly won by an astonishing 12.2 percent of the votes cast on Election Day.

Sink did well with early votes cast by absentee ballot or in person; 69 percent of the electorate voted this way, and backed Sink 48-46 percent. But it wasn’t enough of a margin to overcome Jolly’s 54-42 percent lead on Tuesday.

The GOP last year lost local elections from Homestead to St. Petersburg, where Gov. Rick Scott’s face was used against the GOP in mailers. And Republicans lost a special election in Tampa Bay-area state House District 36.

Those Democratic wins made the vestiges of Obama’s organization look formidable. But Tuesday’s Republican win in CD13 made the Republican Party’s once-vaunted turnout machine look vaunted again.

So is CD13 a one-off or part of a trend? We’ll see.

But it’s not 2010 again. And the political climate is definitely not like that of 2008. Instead, 2014 might be a slack-tide election.

Whoever gets his base out wins. It’s all about turnout — a cliché as overused as it is true.

Ask Alex Sink. Her campaign did a great job of messaging to independents and crossover voters. It made sense. It’s a swing district. But the swing voters needed to come out more. And they didn’t. Sink’s surrogates talked about climate change and oil drilling and abortion.

Jolly was more red meat, focused more heavily on Republicans and Obamacare.

Democrats want to take back Jolly's seat in November along with another Republican-held district in the Tallahassee area. Democrats are also defending two other competitive seats, including the Florida Keys-Miami district of Rep. Joe Garcia.

In all of those congressional races, conservatives are making Obamacare an issue, just as they are in the governor’s race, where Democratic frontrunner Charlie Crist has embraced the healthcare reform act as “great.”

Crist has an Obama team guiding him, and the former Republican governor has been moving further and further left now that he is a Democrat. He seems to understand base elections. But it’s a delicate balancing act. And whether the party-switcher can pull it off is anyone’s guess.

If Crist loses, he’ll be the fourth Tampa Bay Democrat in a row to go down in a governor’s race.

Right now, polls show he’s ahead. But polls change. And they can be wrong.

That happened with Sink, in great part because Democrats appeared to underperform so greatly.

The takeaway: Focus on your base and dance with them what brung ya.

Fortunately for Republicans and unfortunately for Sink (and perhaps Crist), Democratic voters don’t have enough interest in consistently showing up to the dance.

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