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.
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.