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History says Alex Sink should have the edge in Fla. special election

Florida Democratic Congressional candidate, Alex Sink, center, speaking at her campaign office in Clearwater, Fla. in November. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius, File)

Women thinking about running for Congress might consider this: Running in a special election is apparently the easier route to getting the job.

According to a Smart Politics study of over 7,500 House races going back to 1980, women have won in special elections at twice the rate they win in general elections — 24 percent to 11 percent. The odds have gotten better over time:

The percentage of U.S. House seats won by women in special elections has become even more pronounced in recent years, with women winning 30.4 percent of such contests since 1998 (21 of 69), 32.6 percent since 2005 (15 of 46), and 37.5 percent since 2011 (6 of 16). By contrast, during this 33+-year span, women have won only just a shade over one in 10 general elections to the chamber – victorious in 817 of the nearly 7,400 seats on the general election ballot since the 1980 election, or 11.0 percent, and peaking at 17.9 percent in the 2012 cycle.

And when women are running against men, they do even better, according to the study.  Out of the 48 special election contests since 1980, women have won nearly 60 percent of those races.

The circumstances for how women end up on a special election ballot have differed over the years, with some benefiting from running for a deceased husband’s seat.  But they all have name recognition in common. This historical backdrop is good news for Alex Sink, the Democratic candidate in Florida’s special election race, who is running against David Jolly, a lobbyist.   Sink has a slight lead, according to the last poll. The historic trend should also temper attempts to view this contest as a test run for the midterms.  Special elections are called special elections for a reason.

But it’s easy to tell what demographic Sink, and Democrats more generally, has been targeting in her highly contested race, which will be decided Tuesday night. Just look at this ad, part of the $9 million ad blitz that Florida voters have been subjected to from both sides:

Women get the most air and face time with Sink, a bank executive and Florida’s former chief financial officer, who Democrats hope will be a test case for how to successfully frame the 2014 midterms and make it a referendum on women’s issues. It is a strategy that pollsters say is most effective when women are carrying the message.  Emily’s List, a progressive group that backs women candidates, poured $550,000 into the race, educating and engaging women voters via mail and raising money for Sink online.

If she wins, the total number of women with seats in Congress, (excluding delegates) would reach 100.

Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for The Fix.

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