Why a Republican Wave in 2014 is Looking More Likely Now

David Jolly wasn’t expected to win Tuesday’s special election. But he capitalized on an increasingly favorable political environment for the GOP.

National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
March 11, 2014, 5:10 p.m.

Tues­day night’s spe­cial elec­tion in Flor­ida should be a ser­i­ous scare for Demo­crats who worry that Obama­care will be a ma­jor bur­den for their party in 2014. Des­pite re­cruit­ing favored can­did­ate Alex Sink, out­spend­ing Re­pub­lic­ans, and util­iz­ing turnout tools to help mo­tiv­ate re­li­able voters, Demo­crats still lost to Re­pub­lic­an lob­by­ist Dav­id Jolly — and it wasn’t par­tic­u­larly close.

The Re­pub­lic­an tool: lots of ad­vert­ise­ments hit­ting Sink over Obama­care, even though she wasn’t even in Con­gress to vote for it. Sink’s re­sponse was from the Demo­crat­ic play­book: Call for fixes, but hit her op­pon­ent for sup­port­ing re­peal. Sink won 46 per­cent of the vote, 2 points be­hind Jolly and 4 points be­low Pres­id­ent Obama’s 2012 total in the dis­trict.

Spe­cial elec­tions don’t ne­ces­sar­ily pre­dict the Novem­ber elec­tions, but this race in a bell­weth­er Flor­ida dis­trict that both parties ag­gress­ively con­tested comes as close as pos­sible to a Novem­ber test run for both parties. Demo­crats worked to clear the field for Sink, an un­suc­cess­ful 2010 gubernat­ori­al nom­in­ee, while Re­pub­lic­ans missed out on their lead­ing re­cruits, set­tling for Jolly, a lob­by­ist who once worked for Rep. Bill Young, the late con­gress­man whose 13th Dis­trict va­cancy Jolly will fill. Sink out­spent Jolly, but the Re­pub­lic­an was able to close the fin­an­cial gap with the help of out­side groups. All told, Demo­crats held a $5.4 mil­lion to $4.5 mil­lion spend­ing ad­vant­age.

“She’s known as a tough in­de­pend­ent busi­ness­wo­man who knows how to get things done, yet [her cam­paign] seemed to run a more pro­cess-ori­ented mes­sage,” said one Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ive in­volved with the Sink cam­paign. “I won­der if they ever really thought they could lose.”

The res­ults are a clear warn­ing sign to Sen­ate Demo­crats, whose ma­jor­ity is threatened thanks to a Re­pub­lic­an-friendly map and a na­tion­al en­vir­on­ment that’s tilted in the GOP’s fa­vor. At least sev­en Demo­crat­ic-held Sen­ate seats are be­ing con­tested in states more con­ser­vat­ive than the Flor­ida House battle­ground. Con­ser­vat­ive groups, led by Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity, are already air­ing ads blast­ing Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors for their sup­port of Obama­care, and their at­tacks have neg­at­ively im­pacted the in­cum­bents’ poll num­bers.

One of the key ques­tions in the race was wheth­er a “fix, don’t re­peal” mes­sage would res­on­ate with voters dis­sat­is­fied with the health care law but un­will­ing to give up on it. The ver­dict is in­com­plete, but it’s an early sign the depth of an­ger over Obama­care. Demo­crats are hop­ing for high­er turnout in the Novem­ber midterms, but core Demo­crat­ic groups usu­ally show up in lower num­bers in off-year elec­tions, too.

“Alex Sink fol­lowed the Demo­crat play­book to the tee and she couldn’t es­cape the weight of Obama­care in even an Obama dis­trict,” Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or Liesl Hickey told Na­tion­al Journ­al.
An­oth­er key test in this race is wheth­er flawed Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates can cost the party seats in oth­er­wise-win­nable races. Demo­crats are hop­ing to make chal­len­ging Sen­ate races a ref­er­en­dum between likable in­cum­bents and un­defined chal­lengers in red-state races in Louisi­ana, North Car­o­lina, and even Arkan­sas with fresh­man Rep. Tom Cot­ton. Jolly’s back­ground was about as un­fa­vor­able as it gets — a Wash­ing­ton in­flu­ence-ped­dler. That was the theme of at­tacks from Sink and oth­er Demo­crat­ic out­side groups. It’s only one race, but it’s a sign that the na­tion­al en­vir­on­ment could trump the mi­cro-ad­vant­ages battle-tested in­cum­bents bring to the table.

The res­ults from this spe­cial elec­tion wer­en’t the biggest sign of the chal­lenges Demo­crats face in the Novem­ber midterms. Obama’s me­diocre ap­prov­al rat­ings, the nag­ging un­pop­ular­ity of the health care law, and the Re­pub­lic­an in­tens­ity ad­vant­age are all lead­ing in­dic­at­ors.

Even more sig­ni­fic­ant are the risks Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates have shown they’re will­ing to make to take ad­vant­age of the prom­ising 2014 en­vir­on­ment. Rep. Cory Gard­ner of Col­or­ado, a fam­ously cau­tious pol, jumped in­to the Sen­ate race against a house­hold name, Sen. Mark Ud­all — thanks to polling show­ing him run­ning com­pet­it­ively with the fresh­man sen­at­or. Former Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee Chair­man Ed Gillespie de­cided to run against the highly pop­u­lar Sen. Mark Warner in the battle­ground Old Domin­ion — after no one else was in­ter­ested. It’s look­ing like Scott Brown is close to chal­len­ging Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, even though she’s got ster­ling fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings. Like Jolly, they’re bet­ting they can na­tion­al­ize the races on the sen­at­ors’ votes for Obama­care.

Jolly’s sur­pris­ing vic­tory is merely the latest in­dic­at­or of 2014 shap­ing up to be a fa­vor­able Re­pub­lic­an year. Sen­ate Demo­crats were already fa­cing a dif­fi­cult map, but Tues­day’s res­ults sug­gest it’s also go­ing to be a dif­fi­cult en­vir­on­ment, too.

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