Alex Sink's loss to David Jolly in FL-13's special election was predictable, but there are lessons there for November.
March 11, 2014

Despite the hand-wringing about the special election in Florida's 13th district being a portent of things to come in November, there are some facts in play here that actually turn Alex Sink's loss and David Jolly's win into a negative for Republicans.

Yes, Obama won FL-13 by one point in 2012, because turnout. But that district has been represented by Republicans for over 40 years. It's a Republican district. It's just not a tea party district, and that means that whatever Republican ran there wasn't going to win by being a Tea Party pal.

The final result ended up with Sink losing by less than 2 percentage points, with the libertarian candidate acting as spoiler for both sides, it seems. With the election in the bag for Jolly, let's turn to the lessons for everyone to learn before November:

  1. Turnout matters more than ads - Republicans ran a strong GOTV operation in the district, appealing to older voters who tend to vote in every election. As for the ads blanketing the district, voters were mostly turned off by the barrage assaulting them every time they turned on their television or radio. According to the Huffington Post, by the end of the election voters were disgusted with both sides. Spending in this special election was weighted toward Sink, who outspent Jolly by a 3-1 ratio.
  2. Mealy-mouthed messages don't work - My personal opinion of Alex Sink is this: She's an awful candidate. She lost to effing Rick Scott! But let's have a look at this campaign and see if she figured anything out. Huffington Post:

    Meanwhile, Sink, Florida's former chief financial officer and the Democratic nominee for governor in 2010, painted Jolly as an extremist who wants to "take us back" to when people were denied coverage due to existing conditions. She pledged to "to keep what's right and fix what's wrong" in the health care law.

    That argument resonated with some voters.

    "While I know it's not perfect, it's may be the beginning of where we can provide adequate health care to everyone, not just the wealthy," said Frieda Widera, a 51-year-old Democrat from Largo who backed Sink.

    Others compared the botched rollout to the beginnings of popular government programs like Social Security and Medicare.

    In an attempt to deflect criticism over the law, Sink and Democrats painted Jolly as a Washington lobbyist who backs efforts to privatize Social Security and gut Medicare. The attack put Jolly on the defensive in recent weeks, and some voters cited concern about GOP cuts to programs for the elderly. More than one in four registered voters in the district is older than 65.

    Ah, a defensive campaign. Fix "what's wrong" with Obamacare? (cue sarcasm) There's a full-throated defense of something that is benefiting well over 8 million Americans since January 1, 2014. (end sarcasm) Sure, she could use the Paul Ryan privatization proposals as cudgels, but what about the actual real Republican crazy taking place in Washington, DC? Where was the hammer over the government shutdown, over cuts to essential programs, over what they've actually done instead of what they might do in the future?

    Lesson #1: Democratic candidates need to quit apologizing for the Affordable Care Act and start owning it. Proudly. Learn it now.

    Lesson #2: Democratic candidates owe it to their districts to enumerate clearly and often the damage Republicans have done in Washington, DC and put forward their own plan for progress.

  3. Winning by less than 2 points with FL-13's demographics isn't much of a win: In 2012, incumbent Bill Young won with 57.6% of total ballots cast, even though Barack Obama won the district by one point. Republicans lost ground this time around. There was no huge win here. It was, at best, a squeaky-by-the-seat-of-the-pants win, which serves as no predictor at all.

The DCCC put far too much money into a race that was probably unwinnable in a special election by a Democrat as bland as Alex Sink. She's an awful candidate who probably ran the best campaign she could, but in the end, she fails to inspire. In these districts, that kind of candidate isn't going to win a low-turnout special election. Period.

In case I didn't mention it, turnout does matter. That district has 460,600 registered voters. Registered Republicans number 170,565, and of those, 89,095 cast a vote. Registered Democrats number 159,213, and of those, 85,639 cast a ballot. 52 percent of registered Republicans voted, as compared to 53.7% of Democrats. While it's good that Democrats came out in similar numbers to Republicans, it wasn't enough to overcome the GOP registered voter edge in that district. It's going to take major turnout in November to hold and/or win these Congressional districts, since so many of them are gerrymandered.

At any rate, this special election predicts nothing. It doesn't support the idea that attacking the ACA will win elections and it doesn't support the idea that weak Democrats will win because the current Republican party, such as it is, is so bad. In the end, Democrats who win will run campaigns that aren't apologetic defensive whines about Republican ACA lies and other nonsense. They'll win with strong ideas that appeal to the voters.

Editor's note: Let's not forget that Sink was also slammed by the Republicans for supporting... Simpson Bowles! In Florida, our national retirement capital.

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