Republicans who want to imagine that they can campaign against Obamacare and win every swing seat that is in the offering in 2014 will try to suggest that GOP nominee David Jolly’s win in Florida’s 13th Congressional District proves their point.
But that’s a stretch.
Jolly did campaign as a critic of the Affordable Care Act. And his Democratic foe, cautiously centrist former Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, did offer a nuanced defense of the reform initiative—along with a more robust argument on behalf of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
But Jolly did not take a Democratic seat.
He kept a Republican seat.
And just barely.
Jolly’s winning percentage of 48.5 in a low-turnout election—where it is generally thought that the voting patterns favor Republicans—was almost ten points below the 2012 number for the Republican he was running to replace, veteran Congressman Bill Young, who passed away last October. It was more than fifteen points below Young’s finish in the Republican wave year of 2010.
And Jolly’s victory did not come cheap.
Jolly’s campaign raised and spent $1.3 million—barely half the total for Sink, whose background in the financial sector and in politics, as a former gubernatorial candidate, gave her some early advantages. As the campaign played out in February and early March, the polls suggested that Sink might secure an upset. Sink had the money advantage, which in a traditional campaign might well have been maintained. But we are now in a new political era when outside groups—with very nearly unlimited resources—can sweep in to fill political voids.
That’s what happend in Florida, where Republican-allied national groups with very deep pockets rushed in to rescue Jolly’s candidacy.
According to an analysis by Center for Public Integrity:
• The National Republican Congressional Committee poured $2.2 million into the district.
• The US Chamber of Commerce came through with $1.2 million.
• The American Action Network, a group with close ties to the national GOP establishment, ponied up $470,000.
• Karl Rove’s American Crossroads project was good for $470,000.
The Florida Republican Party and other Republican-allied and conservative groups pumped hundreds of thousands of additional dollars into the district.
To be sure, outside groups that favored Sink spent heavily on the race. But, while Sink’s campaign had the direct-donation advantage, Jolly got the outside advantage. Roughly $5 million in outside money aided the Republican’s cause, as compared with roughly $3.7 million from groups that were friendly to the Democrat, according to the Center for Public Integrity. That allowed the Republican to come on strong at the close. And the pro-Jolly and anti-Sink messaging by the outside groups was not just well-funded. It was aggressive, targeted and effective. This is something that Democrats need to understand before they make the wrong excuses for losing a race they had desperately hoped to win—because the pattern that played out in Florida’s special election is not unique to one race or one moment; it will be seen throughout this critical election year.
In Florida, the outside spending spree helped to bring Jolly across the line by 3,456 votes Tuesday night. That’s hardly a dramatic accomplishment, considering that the Republican nominee ran as a fifth-generation Floridian with deep roots in the district and a claim on Young’s legacy—as the former general counsel for the congressman.
Jolly was also running in a swing district where, while it had grown more Democratic, Republicans remained highly viable—especially in non-presidential elections. Much is made of the fact that the 13th backed Barack Obama over Mitt Romney in 2012. But Obama ran behind his national percentage in the Florida district and Romney ran ahead of his. By the presidential measure, the district is more Republican than the country. And, while Bill Young was personally popular, his long winning streak served as a reminder of the district’s historic Republican lean in congressional elections.
In the best of circumstances, Sink might well have won. But few seriously suggest that 2014 is a “best of circumstances” year for Democrats.
So Jolly was set up for a win Tuesday night. And he closed the deal.
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden was quick to peddle the predictable talking point, arguing within minutes of the completion of the count that Sink was “ultimately brought down because of her unwavering support for Obamacare, and that should be a loud warning for other Democrats running coast to coast.”
That’s a tortured conclusion given Jolly’s far-worse-than-usual finish for a Republican.
The Florida result was not a sweeping “referendum on Obamacare” win. If anything, the closeness of the finish to a race where the choice was clearly defined calls into question the power of opposition to the Affordable Care Act as a definitional issue for the Republicans.
Does that mean that the Democrats should see some kind of silver lining in the results? No.
Democrats need to recognize some harsh realities that have been highlighted by the Florida race and its result—and that they might yet be able to counter.
Off-year elections, particularly in the second term of a presidency, don’t often go well for the party of the president. Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats took a pounding in 1938, Dwight Eisenhower’s Republicans took a pounding in 1958, Ronald Republicans lost the Senate in 1986, George Bush’s Republicans lost the House and Senate in 2006.
Democrats remain vulnerable in Senate races, as Democratic incumbents who were elected with Barack Obama in 2008 are up for re-election this year and they won’t enjoy the benefits of presidential-level turnout. Democratic House candidates will be similarly disadvantaged, meaning that what seemed like swing districts in 2012 could be much tougher turf in 2014.
To get a sense of how much the ground can shift in a non-presidential year, consider this: In 2012, 329,347 votes were cast in the 13th district. In yesterday’s election, around 182,000 votes were cast—way less even than the 267,000 that were cast in the 2010 midterm election
Which brings us back to the money issue.
Sink raised a lot of money early, and she got substantial support from national Democrats and their allies. That’s the nature of special elections. And Sink, with her centrist politics, her background in the financial-services industry and as the 2010 Democratic nominee for governor of Florida, was especially well-positioned to raise the funds that were available for her campaign. This allowed the Democrat to hold her own through the race.
But it will be hard for Democrats to recreate this combination in every other swing district and every other swing state. There are no guarantees that they will have the money that is necessary to maintain sufficient volume for their message in the cacophony that is coming. In an exceptionally expensive special election race—where spending by all sides topped $12 million—Democrats could not match the outside spending of the Republicans. And it won’t get any easier this fall. Multiply that $12 million spent in one Florida race times the number of House districts where Democrat incumbents and challengers could be in close contests, and then add in the massively more expensive Senate races, and every indication is that this will be the most expensive non-presidential election cycle in American history.
The Florida result won’t lead to a dialing down of the spending by either side. If anything, it makes an intense election cycle even more intense. The Republicans and their allies know they just scraped by in Florida. But they also know that money made the win possible. That’s going to inspire more fund-raising, and more spending by the national groups that swooped into Florida in the last weeks before the special election. And there’s a lot more money to be collected from the billionaires and millionaires who are the source for so many of the outside groups.
Democrats are not going to be beat by Obamacare this year. But they could well be beat by money—especially the sort of outside money that flows so freely in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling. And they are certainly threatened by patterns of depressed turnout.
That’s not an argument for some new fund-raising strategy. That’s an argument for some new thinking.
What Florida should tell Democrats is that they must worry less about Obamacare (unless they are proposing a “Medicare-for-All” fix”) and more about the issues on which they might generate increased turnout among their base voters—especially young people. Sink did not, in any sense, run a populist campaign; indeed, her final message was a soft appeal for bipartisanship that sounded nice enough but that had the feel of a candidate trying to appeal to a small number of swing voters rather than a candidate trying to expand the electorate. That’s an insufficient approach. Democrats are going to need an edge this fall, a base-building appeal that excites unlikely voters, if they hope to tip the balance in swing districts—let alone dislodge Republican incumbents in districts gerrymandered to their advantage.
In other words, Democrats must bring more issues to the forefront in order to heighten the level of contradiction. They need an even more intense emphasis on protecting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But House Democrats, in particular, should keep picking new fights on unemployment benefits, living wages and income inequality. And they should start talking a lot more about student-loan debt, access to higher education and youth unemployment and under-employment. That’s the right thing to do. It’s also necessary—because Democrats are going to need an issue advantage and some populist power if they hope to counter the kind of money that secured Tuesday’s victory for David Jolly.