Democrats Look to Beat Obamacare Rap in Florida

Party holds early edge in special election, but it’s unlikely to translate elsewhere.

MIAMI - OCTOBER 21: Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink speaks during a campaign event at Miami-Dade College October 21, 2010 in Miami, Florida. Sink is facing off against Republican challenger Rick Scott for the Florida governor's seat.
National Journal
Scott Bland
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Scott Bland
Jan. 14, 2014, midnight

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.

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