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
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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