SAFETY HARBOR, Fla. — Alex Sink was running late, but she was still in a chipper mood.
“How is everybody?” the Democrat cheerfully asked her team of door-knockers during a campaign swing in this Tampa-area district.
Judging by the usual campaign metrics, Sink has a lot to be upbeat about in her quest to replace one of the longest-serving Republicans in the history of the House of Representatives. She faces a Republican fresh off a competitive primary roiled by family drama, she is raising a lot of money, and she boasts a résumé free of congressional baggage. She is the Democrats’ dream candidate for Congress.
But this isn’t a usual campaign. It’s set against the backdrop of a disastrous couple of months for Democrats, who have been weighed down by the troubled rollout of the federal health-care law and a president who just suffered his worst year in the White House.
If there’s going to be a political recovery, it could well begin in this swing-district special election. All the fundamentals favor Sink, and a loss would confirm all the Democratic anxiety about the political liability of the health-care issue going into the November midterm elections.
Republicans on Tuesday nominated David Jolly to run against Sink, who was unopposed on the Democratic side. A former lobbyist who has fashioned himself as a natural successor to the late congressman C.W. Bill Young, his old boss and a man regarded as political royalty in this Gulf Coast district just west of Tampa, Jolly is eager to shape the election as a referendum on the Affordable Care Act.
“When I got into this race, I wanted to talk about a whole lot of things,” including fiscal matters, he said. “But without a doubt, day one, the issue was Obamacare. The voters have made that the issue.”
Sink doesn’t agree. In her view, the race will pivot on a broader range of topics.
“Hardly anybody is walking up to me saying Obamacare is the thing that they care the most about,” Sink said. “They are caring about dysfunction; they are caring about the flood-insurance issues.”
But the law continues to receive widespread attention nationally, suggesting it will factor into the outcome of the contest, especially since Republicans are expected to raise it at every turn.
When Sink entered the race in late October, the government shutdown had tarnished the GOP’s image and breathed new life into Democrats’ long-shot hopes of winning back the House majority. Problems with HealthCare.gov and the revelation that some Americans stood to lose their current coverage swiftly curtailed that momentum.
The result is that Sink, a former state chief financial officer and the 2010 nominee for governor, is in an unexpectedly precarious position. She says the health-care law ought to be repaired rather than repealed, a position most Democratic congressional candidates have adopted.
Jolly touted his commitment to repeal the law during the primary, which included two other candidates who also wanted to do away with it. He even sought to cast himself as a harder-line opponent of it than state Rep. Kathleen Peters (R), who finished second.
Democrats say repeal is an overcorrection that will be received poorly by voters.
The sharp contrast in positions has turned the race into a closely watched testing ground for the potency of each message. The 13th District is a purple terrain that President Obama carried in 2012 by fewer than two points.
“It’s not only the subject matter, it’s the mechanics of how you campaign that you can learn a lot about from these kinds of districts. And I think you’re going to see that with this one,” said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida.
The winner of the March election will have enormous shoes to fill. Young represented this area for more than four decades before his death in October. The moderate Republican was beloved by constituents.
But Young’s legislative legacy was overshadowed in the closing stage of the primary by his personal life. A report in the Tampa Bay Times detailed his first marriage and his distant relationship with his children from that marriage, which mostly remained tucked away from the public’s view for decades.
Young’s widow, Beverly Young, endorsed Jolly. But Bill Young II, the son of Beverly and the late representative, backed Peters, who said she opted to run to give voters a choice.
Retired Marine Brig. Gen. Mark Bircher finished third in the GOP primary. The political newcomer said he “literally went onto Google and said, ‘How do you run for Congress in Florida?’ ”
The messy Republican primary allowed Sink to lie low and gear up for the March election. She raised more money than the entire GOP field combined, according to recent campaign finance reports.
Demographically, the district is fertile territory for Republicans. It is predominately white and older than most areas. Still, Republicans and Democrats agree that the path to victory here does not lie in being an ideologue. The GOP voters here are well within Sink’s reach.
“They drive Volvos, they go to Starbucks, they care about the environment, and they are being more pro-choice,” said Dave Beattie, a Democratic strategist who conducted polls for Sink’s gubernatorial campaign.
In addition to trying to tie Sink to national Democrats, Republicans intend to cast her as a carpetbagger. She moved into the district from Thonotosassa — about 30 miles away — after announcing her campaign.
Sink noted that she has years of business experience in the area and represented the district as state chief financial officer. “It’s not like I moved from Miami,” she said.
Democrats, meanwhile, already have their own label for Jolly: “Washington lobbyist.”
Jolly said he is “proud of the fact” that he knows “how to work with a very complex federal government.”