The March 11 victory by underdog Republican candidate David Jolly in Florida’s 13th congressional district is being hotly debated by both sides of the aisle on whether the contest is an indicator of things to come in the 2014 midterm election later this year.
The district west of Tampa is like many in Florida, home to a plethora of retirement communities, senior citizens hailing from states further north and a higher than average Jewish population – at 2.73 percent, compared to 2.18 percent nationally, according to a 2013 study by Joshua Comenetz for the Berman Jewish DataBank at the Jewish Federations of North America.
By most accounts, the race shouldn’t have gone the GOP’s way.
Jolly, who had no name recognition, worked as a lobbyist, had recently gone through a divorce and had been campaigning with his girlfriend, narrowly edged out a candidate the Democrats placed their hope – and sizeable funds – behind in a special election to fill the seat of longtime Republican Rep. C.W. Bill Young, who died last fall.
Jolly’s Democratic opponent, Alex Sink, was a polished candidate who had served as Florida’s chief financial officer and ran a strong campaign for governor, losing to Rick Scott by one percent of the vote in 2010. With her name recognition and personal appeal, she sailed through a primary unopposed; Jolly, by contrast, had to clear a field of three primary challengers to emerge for the general election far behind Sink in campaign funds.
And although the district had been represented in Congress by a Republican for nearly 40 years, it voted twice, in 2008 and 2012, for President Barack Obama. With no incumbent, this year’s contest was Sink’s to lose, owing to her superior name recognition and war chest.
Were it not for the visceral opposition to Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act, say some analysts, Jolly’s come-from-behind victory would have been surprising. Largely following a script used by the GOP in the 2010 midterm elections, Jolly focused most of his campaign toward attacking the health care law and calling for its repeal. Sink, meanwhile, positioned herself as a moderate willing to fix the law.
Many Republicans are pointing to the race as proof of the strategy’s effectiveness.
“There’s no doubt Florida 13 has Democrats increasingly worried about losing the Senate,” Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, wrote in a column posted to the Breitbart website. “And they should be worried. Not only did it show that their policies — especially Obamacare — are unpopular, but Republicans were able to benefit from the RNC’s new voter engagement strategy, which includes the new data tools, new technology, and new permanent ground game that we’re using all across the country.”
With the success of the health care platform, the GOP is clearly anxious about the strategy’s chances in other competitive races throughout the country. In addition to the Senate, a number of House districts may also be at play, and Democrats reacted to the loss in Florida by characterizing the Jolly effort as a flash in the plan. Democratic National Committee chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, herself from Florida, said that a Republican focus on undermining the Affordable Care Act would “alienate” voters around the country.
Kyle Kondik, managing editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said there’s no surprise in the prospect of a Republican surge later this fall.
“If you look at the historical trends for going into a midterm [election], there’s the fact that there’s a Democrat in the White House and that Democrat doesn’t have great approval ratings,” explained Kondik.
“That in and of itself sort of tells us that Republicans are set up to have at least an OK year.”
Kondik was quick to caution against drawing solid conclusions from a special election in a politically-balanced district – where the margin of victory was not great – but he acknowledged that the GOP will try to “milk it for all it’s worth.”
“The national environment isn’t all that great for Democrats right now, but that’s not written in stone,” he said. “Then again, I think at this point you’d rather be the Republicans than the Democrats in this midterm.”
Being a midterm election, there will be no presidential coat-tail effect on the congressional and Senate races. This year, without Obama at the top of the ballot, Democrats will have to absorb Republicans’ attacks on the president’s record.
“I think that the Jolly victory reflects a historical trend that there tends to be a hubris that kicks in when one party dominates, when one party holds power, and six years into an eight year term, the party out of power usually does quiet well,” said Frank Scaturro, a constitutional attorney, author and one of the two GOP candidates competing for the nomination to run for retiring Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy’s seat in New York’s 4th congressional district, which encompasses Nassau County’s Five Town and surrounding areas.
Scaturro’s district, where Jews make up the highest percentage of any contested seat, is considered a likely Democratic district by the Cook Political Report’s ratings and Sabato’s Crystal Ball politics blog, though Scaturro believes that the area’s slow but noticeable moves to the right in previous elections will give Republicans a good chance in the general campaign.
JNS.org contributed to this story.