Why Millions Are Being Spent on Florida’s Special Election

Both parties are gambling their reputations to win a true swing district.

Florida congressional District 13 candidates, Democrat Alex Sink, left, and Republican David Jolly. 
National Journal
Scott Bland
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Scott Bland
Feb. 27, 2014, 4 p.m.

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.

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