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Can the GOP turn a Florida win into midterm momentum?

March 12, 2014 at 6:19 PM EDT
In a closely watched special election, Florida’s right-leaning 13th congressional district voted in Republican David Jolly by a narrow margin over the Democratic candidate. Judy Woodruff asks Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report and Susan MacManus from the University of South Florida about how the results could sway the forecast for upcoming midterm elections in November.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Republicans today basked in the glow of victory for their candidate in a hotly contested Florida special election, a result that could forecast trouble for Democrats ahead.

Voters in Florida’s 13th Congressional District delivered their verdict in a special election that gained the national spotlight. Only 40 percent of those registered turned out, and they narrowly favored Republican David Jolly.

DAVID JOLLY, R, Florida Congressman-Elect: I am honored and I am humbled to have received the support of my community and have the opportunity to serve as your next representative from Florida’s 13th Congressional District.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Jolly took 48 percent of the vote, to 46 percent for Democrat Alex Sink. They battled in a Tampa-area district that has leaned Republican. The GOP has held the congressional seat for some 60 years. But Democrats hoped votes would swing in their favor after President Obama carried the district in the last two presidential elections.

National parties and outside groups looked to Tuesday’s contest for early clues to next November’s midterm elections, especially how the president’s health care law will play.

NARRATOR: Three hundred thousand Floridians will lose their health coverage because of Obamacare. Alex Sink supported it, and she still does.

NARRATOR: Whose behind these ads smearing Alex Sink? Insurance companies and special interests. They have spent millions on David Jolly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The non-profit Sunlight Foundation reports overall spending on the race topped $11 million. Sink outspent Jolly by more than 3-1 one on television ads. But outside groups helped make up the difference for the Republican.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio, Speaker of the House: Well, they had a big win last night in Florida.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Today, House Speaker John Boehner and the White House had decidedly different takes.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: It’s about the economy. It’s about Obamacare. Listen, I have stood here after — after losing some special elections. I tried to put lipstick on a pig, but it was still a pig. So you can bet they will try to put lipstick on it today, but you all know what the facts are.

JAY CARNEY, White House Press Secretary: It’s a race where, again, Republicans held the seat for 58 years, where they routinely won that seat by 30 or more points. And last night, they won by less than two points. So it is what it is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jolly will fill the seat of the late Congressman Bill Young, who died last October, in his 21st term.

We examine the outcome in yesterday’s special election and what it means going forward, with Stu Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report and Roll Call newspaper, and Susan MacManus. She’s professor of political science at the University of South Florida.

Welcome to you both.

Susan MacManus, you know this state very well. Describe this district for us and where it is — it’s part of St. Petersburg — and who lives there.

SUSAN MACMANUS, University of South Florida: Yes, it’s a district that is Pinellas County. It’s all in one county, with portions of downtown St. Petersburg is carved out. It’s predominantly Anglo or white district, a lot of older voters.

Over half are baby boomers or seniors. But 25 percent of the electorate there is no party affiliation or a minor party. And there’s only a 2.4 percent difference in registration between Republicans and Democrats, with the Republicans having the upper hand.

It’s been evolving into a very competitive district, and going into the election, Democrats were hopeful they could pick the seat up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Stu, as Susan says, evolving Democratic. Did one candidate or another, the Democrat or the Republican, have an advantage going in?

STUART ROTHENBERG, The Rothenberg Political Report: Well, in terms of the numbers, partisan numbers, no. This is a tossup district. The president won it twice, and George Bush won it in 2004.

All the indices show a very evenly divided district. But I think it was clear Alex Sink, the Democrat, had significant advantages going into the actual special election. Republican Jolly had a primary challenge. His was — he has..

JUDY WOODRUFF: Had a challenge.

STUART ROTHENBERG: He had a primary challenge, right.

His record — he was a Washington lobbyist. That is not a great credential to go to a special election. Christmas just a few months ago, Alex Sink had a million dollars in the bank. Jolly had just over $100,000 and he was in the middle of a primary contest.

Alex Sink has won this district before, when then she ran statewide a couple of times. So all indications were that she had the advantage going into this race.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Susan MacManus, what was the message coming from each one of these candidates?

SUSAN MACMANUS: Pure and simple, it was about Washington.

So, if you were in favor of the president’s performance in office and Obamacare, it was clear Sink was your candidate. On the other side, if you didn’t like what was going on up here, you were very opposed to Obamacare, you wanted to get rid of it, then Jolly was your person.

This is one of the clearest races in terms of choices that I have seen in Florida in a long time. And you had a libertarian in the race as well who was sort of overlaying on each of them, but in certain polls drawing 6 percent or 7 percent of support there.

But it was absolutely crystal-clear the issues were really the dividing line, and it came down to your views on Obamacare and the president.


STUART ROTHENBERG: There were some personal attacks, so that the Republicans complained about Alex Sink’s performance when she was chief financial officer of the state, or use of an airplane. Democrats talked about Jolly’s ethics, raising questions about him.

But I think Susan is right. I mean, this boiled down to millions of dollars of ads, where Democrats said, you can’t trust David Jolly, he’s a lobbyist, he’s a Republican, he’s a conservative, he’s going to cut Medicare and privatize Social Security, and the Republicans saying, it’s all about Obamacare, Barack Obama, bigger government, more spending.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Susan, were you able to drill down and find out more about what voters — what their reaction is to the health care law?  SUSAN MACMANUS: I don’t think it’s really clear coming out of this, other than it mirrors the national polls, which show a slight majority are in favor of getting rid of it.

But she really tried to segue or pivot away from Obamacare and focus on Social Security and Medicare.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is the Democrat, Alex Sink.


And I don’t think that that really worked well, which is something I know Democrats were thinking about trying in other districts. But there is another factor that is kind of personal. And that is, he tried to cast her as a carpetbagger, someone who intentionally moved into the district from Hillsborough County just to run for this.

And, at first, I didn’t think this was really significant because two-thirds of Florida voters were from someplace else. But the more I mingle with people in the county over there, I observed that it really was significant to people, and I think it did hurt her a bit in the end.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stu, I have been reading some analysis today that the Democrat, Alex Sink, never really came up with an adequate explanation on the president’s health care law, on Obamacare, that she was on the defensive, didn’t explain it well.

What are national Democrats saying about it today?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, national Democrats have a totally different analysis than most people.

Some of them are saying that this is a heavily Republican electorate and that Sink did relatively well because she answered the questions about Obamacare and health care generally. They continue to stress the numbers of the kinds of people who voted, that these were Republican voters.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was a lower turnout, with 40 percent.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Yes, absolutely. Democrats do have — often have trouble with low-turnout elections. Remember, elections are not about what Americans think. They’re about what the particular voters think.

So there’s no doubt here. But there is a problem for Democrats. The fact that the electorate was so Republican suggests Republican enthusiasm and maybe lack of Democratic enthusiasm. And Democrats are going to have to deal with this in November in the midterms as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So — and, Susan, pick up on that. There’s a lesson for Republicans as well.


I think a lot of it is that Democrats do well in Florida and elsewhere when they get a large share of younger voters. It’s exactly who helped Obama win in the last hours, were the younger voters that turned out higher than people ever anticipated in Florida.

She wasn’t able to really engage them. And I think some of the fault comes with these national ads which featured just about 100 percent older people in there. There was nothing that really drew younger people to the polls at all, and it’s spring break time in Florida.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it is the first of many elections we’re going to be watching this year. We thank you both, Susan MacManus, Stu Rothenberg.