Republicans were rejoicing Wednesday over their surprising Florida congressional victory the night before, a triumph that they said proved that opposition to the health care law would be a powerful political weapon this year.
Their success was unsettling news for Democrats, who’ve been on the defensive for months over the glitches, breakdowns and tweaks to the new health care system they’ve proudly championed. Most Republicans never liked the 2010 law, and their relentless efforts to repeal and replace it became so persistent that Democrats took to mocking them.
Suddenly, the GOP strategy seems to make some sense, as Republican David Jolly defied polls and pundits Tuesday by defeating Democrat Alex Sink in a special election for a U.S. House of Representatives seat near Tampa on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Republicans hammered away at the Affordable Care Act, a harbinger of things to come as the midterm election campaign gets underway.
“Unless there’s some big success with the law, Republicans are going to be able to pull up something that doesn’t work right and use it,” said Susan MacManus, a professor of government and international affairs at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
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A majority doesn’t like the law; 55 percent disapproved and 40 percent approved in a recent Gallup poll.
Despite their defeat, Democrats remain convinced that the law will gain more support as enrollment grows and consumers see the law’s impact.
Ironically, Florida’s marketplace insurance enrollment has been a national success. New research from Avalere Health, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm, found that it was among just five states _ California, Washington, Idaho and North Carolina were the others _ that have already surpassed their projected insurance marketplace enrollments for this year.
Florida’s 442,000 enrollees are 105 percent of the state’s projected enrollment of 421,000, despite early technical problems that made it difficult for residents to sign up on the HealthCare.gov website.
Nonetheless, opposition to the program motivated a lot of Florida voters. Lee Pilon, a manufacturing firm owner in Clearwater, Fla., succinctly explained a big reason he went with Jolly: “She was for Obamacare and he’s not.”
Obamacare was “a huge issue,” said Kerriann Kinports, a Palm Harbor, Fla., stay-at-home mom who preferred Sink.
The law “needs to be fixed, and she wants to fix it,” Kinports said. And why, she added, shouldn’t people have health insurance? Starting this year, most individuals must have coverage or face a penalty.
“If you own a car you have to have car insurance,” Kinports said. “A homeowner has to have insurance. Is my body less important than my car or my home?”
Other factors sank Sink, notably her lack of personal pizazz and a perception that she was too eager to embrace big government.
Pilon explained that though he’s a conservative, he had some reservations about Jolly, a former Capitol Hill aide who worked for the late Republican Rep. Bill Young. It was Young’s death last fall after more than four decades in Congress that prompted the special election.
Pilon said Jolly was “not the most conservative guy in the world, and he is a Washington insider. But (Sink) blew it when she opened her mouth.”
The race’s outcome was a fresh signal for Democrats that this year could be rough. Seven Senate seats they now hold are in states that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried in 2012 and where the health care law is considered highly unpopular. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to control the Senate.
In the House of Representatives, Republicans have a 232- to 199-seat majority; 218 are needed for control. Congressional district lines have been largely drawn to favor incumbents, making it hard for Democrats to gain a majority.
In the special election for the Florida 13th Congressional District seat, Sink had been widely expected to win, despite its long Republican lineage. She was regarded as a savvy candidate. She lost the 2010 race for governor to Republican Rick Scott by about 1 percentage point. This year, the party rallied behind her. Former President Bill Clinton made robocalls. Vice President Joe Biden helped raise money.
Most of the estimated $12 million spent on the race, an unusually large sum, came from outside groups.
Republican-friendly interests pounded away at the health care law. American Crossroads, a conservative group with ties to former George W. Bush political adviser Karl Rove, invested about $500,000 on television ads, mail and phone calls.
The effort was “an important test market,” said Steven Law, the group’s president and CEO.
Democrats blamed the victory on that kind of big money from outside groups.
“Republican special interest groups poured in millions to hold on to a Republican congressional district that they’ve comfortably held for nearly 60 years,” said Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida congresswoman.
Republicans see the upset as a political momentum-builder, and they said that other Democratic congressional candidates who back the health care law would do well to take notice.
Independent experts said the health care law was here to stay as a big campaign issue, symbolic of all that some voters disliked about Washington.
“They think Washington is broken,” said MacManus, “and saying that works politically.”
Tony Pugh contributed to this story.