It’s been two weeks since the Florida special election. What’s changed — and what hasn’t.


Republican David Jolly and Democrat Alex Sink. (Reuters)

When Republican David Jolly defeated Democrat Alex Sink in Florida’s 13th Congressional District earlier this month, Republicans declared that this the first raindrop of an upcoming GOP midterm monsoon, while Democrats insisted that this was just a one-off special election that said little about what would happen come November.

Many on both sides of the aisle argued that FL-13 could potentially serve as a means of forecasting what lies ahead in November as the parties wrestle for congressional control in a series of contentious midterms elections and that the race had the potential to serve as a rallying point for whichever party was victorious.

But, about a month later, it appears that Republicans gained little from their special election victory -- besides, of course, retaining a House seat. Democratic and Republican officials and operatives agree that the Jolly-Sink race did little to move the needle in terms of any greater overall trend in 2014 and that it was quickly overshadowed by the real midterm fight: the Senate.

Recruitment and fundraising

Conventional wisdom dictates that one of the major benefits that the victorious party stands to gain from an early-in-the-cycle special election win during the midterms is an early mobilization of the base -- which helps turn out stronger candidates for races across the board.

But, with the special election held so relatively late in the cycle, coming just a month or two before many states hold their primary elections, the field of Republican congressional candidates was already largely set by the time Jolly was sworn in.

Republican operatives say they are happy with the strength of candidates they've got this time around, but few attribute that strength to the special election win in Florida.

And while both parties have yet to report fundraising numbers for March, neither expects to receive a major fundraising bump from the FL-13 race.

Messaging

Some speculated that the race would be a trial run for candidate messaging with regard to the Affordable Care Act. Republicans dumped boatloads of money into the race decrying the health-care law, while Sink held firm in her support of her "fix it, not repeal it" stance. When Jolly won, Republicans were quick to declare that this meant their anti-Obamacare messaging would lead to a wave of similar victories come November.

It remains to be seen if the Republicans will be able to take the Senate, but what has become clear is that many Democrats are not going to change their messaging: Some will continue to support the Affordable Care Act, others will tone down their rhetoric and embrace "fix it" messaging. But all in all, we've yet to see vulnerable Democrats completely jumping ship and abandoning their support of the health-care law.

Now, that doesn't mean that the Democratic fidelity to the Affordable Care Act will work.

A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 47 percent of voters say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate like Jolly compared to 32 percent who say they are less likely. As for candidates like Sink, who support keeping and fixing the health-care law, voters polled were split: 45 percent said they would be more likely to vote for such a candidate and 42 percent said they would be less likely.

Top Democrats including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), meanwhile, have consistently insisted that Democrats should not run from the Affordable Care Act.

In fact, Democrats aren't even running from Sink -- and have continued to bring her up as a potential candidate against Jolly when he must run for a full term in November.

"The Affordable Care Act is ours." said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) during a briefing with reporters Tuesday. "We can shuck-and-jive and bob-and-weave and duck and hide. I don't think that works."

The Republicans "spent some three, four or five million in Florida on the Affordable Care Act and Alex Sink... and they won it by 1.8 percent," Hoyer added. "It doesn't seem to me like that had an overwhelming, devastating effect on the election. Period. And frankly, I think that if Alex Sink runs in the general when we have better turnout among Democrats, she's going to win that election."

For what it's worth, Sink has said she is keeping an "open mind" about challenging Jolly again for the seat.

Predictive power

While several headlines in the days following Jolly's win suggested that it could be a sign of an upcoming Republican wave, it's important to remember that the 2014 battle will be waged for control of the Senate -- and a special election for a seat in the House eight months before the November elections holds little predictive power to the midterm elections.

Control of the Senate will be determined by the GOP's ability to oust incumbent Democrats in states where the Affordable Care Act is unpopular or has been rolled out most ineffectively -- a dynamic far different from what played out in FL-13.

However, the FL-13 race did reveal a weakness in the Democratic armor: a languid midterm turnout machine.

In a district that President Obama won easily in 2012 (despite the fact that the GOP had held the congressional seat for years), Democrats failed to get enough voters to the polls for the special election.

As pollster Celinda Lake pointed out at a breakfast Tuesday, GOP voter intensity in 2014 is currently outpacing Democratic intensity by at least seven points:

Sixty-four percent of Republicans say they are "extremely likely" to vote in November's midterms, compared with 57 percent of Democrats.

"I think we saw it play out in the Florida special," Lake said.  She called the Republican turnout machine in that race "darn effective," and said Democrats should not underestimate the GOP's get-out-the-vote operation this year.

All in all, the FL-13 election taught us two things: Both parties are going to stick to their Obamacare messaging, and Republicans hold a slight turnout/enthusiasm edge. Both of these were themes established well-before Florida voters hit the polls.

Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
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