Does A GOP Win In FL-13 Mean Anything?
The big news last night was the victory of David Jolly over former Florida Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Alex Sink in a Special Election to fill the seat of former Republican Congressman Bill Young, who died late last year after having served in Congress for nearly forty years. Leading up to last night’s results, both parties and their surrogates has expended as somewhat astounding $12,000,000 on a race in a district that had been represented by a Republican for some four decades, but which had allegedly been trending Democratic in recent years. For example, Sink herself won the district in 2010 when she ran against Florida Governor Rick Scott and President Obama won the district by some five percentage points in 2012. In both years, of course, Young was re-elected by comfortable margins although the “conventional wisdom” seemed to attribute that more to the fact that he was a popular and long-standing incumbent than to any endorsement of Republicans. At the very least, then, Florida-13 can be characterized as one of the few remaining “swing” districts in the nati0n, meaning that it is one that is potentially capable of going for either party depending on the dynamics of a particular election.
So, does the fact that a Republican won election last night in a district formerly represented by a Republican which had also voted Democratic in recent elections actually mean anything?
Republicans, of course, will want you to believe that it does and that FL-13 is a harbinger of the problems that Democrats will face in the November midterms. Perhaps in some sense this will turn out to be true. It is certainly the case, for example, the the Jolly campaign and those outside groups that worked on the district on its behalf spent considerable time emphasizing the ongoing problems with the Affordable Care Act, and there will be many in the GOP who will use this victory as evidence in favor their position that this is something that Republican candidates, both at the House and Senate level, should be doing between now and November. In reality, of course, the PPACA was going to be at the center of the GOP’s campaign message regardless of what happened last night, so I’m not sure that the results 0f the Jolly-Sink race actually change anything in that regard.
Democrats, of course, will do their best to try to dismiss the results of the electi0n in Florida. Some of that dismissal was on prominent display last night on Twitter as top Democrats and pundits on the left tried to undercut the results by pointing out that the district had been represented by a Republican for decades. Such comments, of course, ignored the fact that both President Obama and Alex Sink herself had won the district in 2012 and 2010 respectively, and many of them seemed to be little more than a desperate attempt at spin in a year when things are looking very troubling for Democrats as a whole.
So where does the truth lie? Somewhere in between, I think.
Republicans are correct to point out the fact that Sink was expected to win the district based in large part on how the district had been trending in 2010 and 2012, and this is likely yet another harbinger of what is likely to be a good year for the GOP nationwide. At the same time, though, it’s worth noting that the numbers over the past three years suggest that what happened last night in Pinellas County, Florida is likely just a temporary state of affairs.
In that respect, just consider these numbers:
- In 2010, when most of what is now known as the 13th District was actually the 10th Congressional District, Congressman Young won an overwhelming victory with 137,943 of the 209,256 votes cast.
- In 2012, Young won the 13th District with 189,605 out of 329,347 votes cast.
- Last night, according to preliminary results, Jolly received 89.099 votes out of 184.278 votes cast.
In other words, the number of votes cast last night was some 20,000 less than the total number cast in the 2010 General Election, and more than 140,000 fewer than those cast in the 2012 election. Obviously, with turnout like that we’re not getting a very accurate picture of what the 13th District of Florida looks like in a General Election without Bill Young on the ballot, and the idea of trying to draw conclusions about national trends from these results is even more precarious. As many of you may recall, Democrats won all but one of the Special Elections held in advance of the 2010 mid-term elections, and we all know how those elections turned out. Given that, the idea that we can really say anything definitive about what will happen in November based on an election in which turnout was down 12% from 2010 and 44% from 2012 seems rather silly when you think about it.
This is why I think Dave Schuler hits the nail on the head when he makes this point:
My conclusion is that politics remains local and in this election in this year David Jolly was a better candidate for FL-13 than Alex Sink. It might also be good to keep in mind that pundits, pollsters, and reporters in all likelihood aren’t very familiar with the district and have an unavoidable temptation to project their own preferences onto candidates and elections. Conditions might look very different on the ground in the district than they do from Washington, New York, or LA.
Not only do I agree with Dave’s observation that Jolly was likely a better candidate or FL-13, I think the results of the election demonstrate clearly that he was a better campaigner. The best evidence of that can be found in the reports that, while Alex Sink narrowly beat Jolly in the early voting and absentee ballots, Jolly won election day voters by at least 54% to 46% according to the preliminary tallies. This suggests that Jolly had a better Get-Out-The-Vote operation than Sink, and also that he was likely able to rely upon his connections to the late Congressman Young, for whom he worked for many years, to appeal to voters on the ground in a way that Sink did not. If anything, that should be a lesson to Republicans that the way you win elections is by running better campaigns, not just by repeating slogans developed by some Tea Party advocate somewhere.