Seasonal migration isn't just for the birds. This winter, political money—millions and millions of dollars of it—has also flown south.
With two weeks to go, outside groups had already spent nearly $7 million to influence the Florida special election to succeed the late Rep. Bill Young, a 22-term Republican who died in October. More will come in the final stretch before Election Day on March 11, showing up on TVs and in mailboxes jammed with political advertising.
Both parties are gambling that their candidate—Democrat Alex Sink, a former gubernatorial nominee, or Republican lobbyist and former Young aide David Jolly—can capture a rare swing seat and, in doing so, prove something to their supporters heading into the November midterms. Republicans are spending a large chunk of their money blasting Sink over President Obama's health care law, while Democrats are testing whether their vaunted get-out-the-vote apparatus can overcome a difficult national environment.
The stakes are high: Only three House races in the whole country saw more than $7 million of outside spending in 2010, and there were just 11 such races in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Although Young comfortably held his seat until his death, the area slowly shifted toward Democrats during his four decades in office. President Obama carried the district narrowly in both 2008 and 2012, even as Young won reelection handily. Any realistic path to a future Democratic House majority runs through districts like this one.
But demography doesn't automatically translate into votes, especially for Democrats, who often struggle to motivate their core supporters when the presidency isn't up for grabs. That's a problem they'll face in November, but it could be especially pressing in March, when "core supporters" are most of what's necessary to win a low-turnout special election. Nearly one-quarter of the district's residents are seniors, who are among the voters most disaffected toward Obama and Obamacare.
Along with volunteers and healthy canvassing efforts, as well as motivational TV ads (which remain a key part of turning out supporters), Democrats are again applying their technological prowess, much discussed after the 2012 presidential race, to the task of finding votes. "A lot of the modeling and analytics you saw in the presidential election, we're starting to see that type of work down in congressional races," said Sink's campaign manager, Ashley Walker, who was Obama's Florida state director in 2012. "Obviously, it's at a different scale, but it does help make budget decisions and target certain groups of voters."
Republicans are getting in the mix, too. Among other efforts, the National Republican Congressional Committee is helping supporters request absentee ballots via its Vote Early Florida Web portal.
Early on, Republicans may have fallen off the pace on getting their votes in.
After a month of mail voting, which could account for a majority of the votes cast, Democrats had cast 39 percent of the returned ballots, with Republicans accounting for 42 percent. That's about even with the GOP voter-registration advantage in the 13th District, but Florida Republicans typically outperform that measure in early voting, building a pre-Election Day advantage over Democrats.
In 2012, the Tampa Bay Times reported, GOP absentee votes there outnumbered Democratic ones by 6 percentage points, and the margin was even bigger in 2010. There is still time, though, for Republicans to stretch their advantage. "If you look at what traditionally happens here with late voters, I think we're OK," said former county GOP Chairman Tony DiMatteo. "Basically, the older people in this county, who tend to be more conservative, vote later."
Although partisan turnout is paramount, both campaigns are also seeking elusive votes outside their parties. "This isn't a Democratic or a Republican district; this is the true definition of a swing district," Walker says. "There's no path to victory without pulling votes from not just independents but from the other side of the aisle." Sink, whose advisers say they expect partisan turnout to end up favoring Jolly, has pursued and touted endorsements from local Republicans, while stressing in campaign ads and appearances that she wants to work with members of both parties.
Jolly's campaign has been more orthodox—if he has Democratic endorsements, he's not bragging about them—but his camp argues that Obamacare can serve as a cross-party motivator. Independents are sourer on the law than in the past, and Democrats aren't showing the level of enthusiasm about the issue necessary to counteract the opposition. Plus, little on either side motivates the base like health care does for the GOP right now.
The lone independent survey of the special election showed Sink narrowly outpacing Jolly among independents and also drawing more cross-party support than he has, to build an overall lead. That's especially concerning to the party strategists who are also worried about Jolly leaking conservative votes to the Libertarian candidate in the race.
Observers can overrate special election results as harbingers of what's to come in November, but the terms of the fight can be predictive. And in this battleground, it's hard to avoid the impression that both parties' national hopes are battling in miniature, as Republicans hope an Obamacare backlash helps deliver the win and Democrats wager on an experienced, appealing candidate and a dose of strategic smarts to help them overcome.
This article appears in the March 1, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Million-Dollar Bet.