Republican David Jolly's victory in a special election to fill Florida's vacant 13th district Tuesday night is the win that will launch a thousand storylines.
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Republicans will argue that the win in a district carried by President Obama against a well-known and well-funded Democratic candidate -- Alex Sink was the party's 2010 gubernatorial nominee -- in which Jolly's messaging revolved around attacking Obamacare is a signal of things to come at the ballot box in November.
"His victory shows that voters are looking for representatives who will fight to end the disaster of Obamacare, to get Washington to spend our money responsibly, and to put power in the hands of families and individuals," crowed Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.
Democrats will insist the district is less Democratic than Obama's numbers suggest and that all Republicans did was hold a seat that Republican Rep. Bill Young had represented for decades before his death last year. "In a special election with an electorate tilted heavily for Republicans, Democrat Alex Sink came closer to victory than any Democrat in decades – especially with 10 Republican outside groups spending $5 million in the race," read a memo put out by House Democrats after the loss.
Spin is spin. Here's the reality.
This was a race that most political observers expected Sink to win. Jolly was a lobbyist -- not exactly the best profession in this political environment -- who was decidedly unproven as a candidate. He had to beat back a sitting state representative in a primary that drained his resources to the point where Sink was able to drastically outspend him. And, he did spend the entirety of the race bashing Obamacare, the issue that Republicans insist will be their silver bullet issue in the fall.
All that said, special election are, well, special. They are, typically, the only election on the ballot in a district -- an occurrence that doesn't come close to approximating what the ballot will look like in November. And, they are almost always on days when elections are not usually scheduled, meaning that turnout patterns are wacky. Remember that from March 2009 to May 2010, Democrats won three very competitive special elections in New York's 2oth and 23rd districts as well as Pennsylvania's 12th. It said little about the massive wave -- a 63 seat Republican gain -- that would would sweep Democrats' out of the House majority in November 2010.
But, whether or not what happened Tuesday night is genuinely predictive of the fall environment or a one-off in special circumstances, you can be certain that already nervous Democratic incumbents --in the House but perhaps even more acutely in the Senate -- will be sent into a tizzy following Sink's defeat.
Why? Because nothing spooks a Member of Congress like losing one of their own. It's hard to overestimate the impact -- politically and from a policy perspective -- that losses by Republican Senate incumbents in Utah and Indiana over the past two elections have had on the Republicans who remain. Now, Sink isn't an incumbent. But, this was a race where Democrats got the candidate they wanted, a candidate with name ID and a proven vote-getting track record. And yet, she lost to a first-time candidate who Republicans had been quietly preparing to throw under the bus for his alleged lack of candidate skills prior to his surprising win Tuesday night. Those facts will not be lost on Democratic incumbents sitting in swing districts or states.
Then there is the impact for Republicans of winning a competitive special election like this one. Imagine you are a Republican in Congress. There's not a whole lot for you to have celebrated over the last few years. You watched as your party lost what everyone thought was a winnable presidential election in 2012. Ditto the race for Senate control where, stunningly, your side lost seats rather than gained them. And, sure, you hold the House majority but the divisions within your party make it impossible to truly govern that body.
Enter David Jolly winning. For a party without much to rally around, this is a genuine feel-good moment -- and one that should help the party raise money from its large and small donors bases as well as raise excitement about the fall within its activist ranks.
Elections have consequences. Whether or not what happened Tuesday in Florida is a bellwether of anything, it will unnerve Democrats and energize Republicans. And, that matters.
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