Democrats might be reading a bit too much into the good position they hold in the race to fill Rep. Bill Young’s seat in Florida.
While Republican voters choose between two bruised and broke candidates in Tuesday’s GOP primary, Democrat Alex Sink already is edging up. And many on the left are seeing this as a sign that Obamacare’s troubles won’t be the automatic death blow to their 2014 midterm election prospects that many Democrats had feared.
But the specifics of this special might not be replicable elsewhere.
Republicans have done darn little to effectively hold onto the Florida’s 13th district. Despite a favorable political environment for Republicans, several big names passed on the race, leaving little-known David Jolly, a former lobbyist and aide to Young, and state Rep. Kathleen Peters as the main contenders. They have emptied their campaign coffers — and bloodied each other a bit — going after their party’s nomination.
“I think that it’s a seat for Alex Sink to lose,” said Mike Fasano, a former Republican state legislator who once represented the area. “I believe the winner of the Republican primary has an uphill battle because in my opinion neither of those two candidates are superior candidates to Sink.”
Both Democrats and some Republicans say Sink, a 2010 gubernatorial candidate, represents something close to an ideal special-election candidate. She came with a strong political profile: Two runs for statewide office, including one victory, let her start the congressional race with strong name recognition, a tested team of political advisors, and fundraising connections. That includes a near-immediate endorsement by EMILY’s List, the powerhouse fundraising group for women Democrats, and the big-spending National Association of Realtors’ political action committee.
The winner of the GOP primary will start the eight-week sprint to the general election broke, while Sink already has over $1 million in the bank. Neither of them raised as much as Sink to begin with, and both spent nearly everything they had fighting for their party’s nomination.
“The race is between Sink’s money and a good environment for Republicans,” said Dan Conston, a spokesman for the Congressional Leadership Fund, a GOP super PAC.
Republicans do have material with which they can go after Sink’s already-established reputation. Obamacare is one big item in the toolbox: “Over 60 right now, Obamacare is deadly poison in Florida,” said Florida Republican media strategist Rick Wilson.
To be sure, any Democratic optimism is tempered by the unique conditions that have boosted Sink in Florida’s 13th District will prove difficult to replicate nationwide in the fall. Sink has avoided embracing the health care law, recognizing its unpopularity. And special elections are, after all, special — even if they take place in a battleground district that divided nearly evenly in the 2012 presidential race.
Sink has criticized the Obama Administration’s implementation of the law, but she backed it in 2010 and it featured in TV ads against her in that year’s governor’s race. The GOP could dust those off again, along with critiques of Florida’s pension fund while she was the state’s chief financial officer.
“She also made millions of dollars leading Bank of America in Florida at the time the whole (financial) crash was being set up, and they were maybe giving out mortgages they shouldn’t have been,” said former Pinellas County GOP chairman Paul Bedinghaus, who also noted — like many Republicans — that Sink carpetbagged her way into the politically insular district from the other side of Tampa Bay.
But given the eventual GOP nominee’s likely money woes, there may not be much time to make a case against Sink stick. The special election is just eight weeks after the primary, and mail ballots are set to go out at the beginning of February. By that point, the Republican nominee will only have had a few weeks to raise money to restock their account.
And while Sink has moneyed outside groups lined up behind her — EMILY’s List, for one, has made the race a top priority, making it likely their independent expenditure arm will come in later — the GOP situation is less sure. Wilson, a consultant to some Republican outside groups, said none of the groups he works with were interested in the race at first, in the wake of the federal government shutdown and plunging GOP popularity. But interest has grown as the political situation improved.
Still, others expect outside money to be another Democratic advantage in the special election. “I think we’ll see polls taken and then third-party groups that might help Republicans stay home,” said Fasano, even as Republican-leaning groups nationally have been spending freely, establishing an early advantage in House outside spending in other districts in 2013 and early this year.
In just the past few months, Democratic-aligned House Majority PAC has had to buy TV time in three House districts — two in Arizona, one in West Virginia — to try and stem a steady flow of hundreds of thousands of conservative-leaning dollars into those Democratic-held battleground seats.
Indeed, the Florida special election may show that a rotten political environment and Obamacare’s struggles are survivable. But with a limited number of truly competitive seats being contested, it’s unlikely that Democrats can bring Sink’s advantages to bear in other races.