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Parties look to Florida special election for clues to November

The Morning Line

Spring training is underway in Florida, and not just for Major League Baseball.

Democrats and Republicans are looking at Tuesday’s special election in Florida’s 13th Congressional District to test their strategies and gain hints of trends in advance of November’s midterm elections.

Polls show the race between Democrat Alex Sink, Florida’s former chief financial officer, and Republican David Jolly, a former lobbyist, too close to call in a district President Barack Obama won narrowly in 2012, but which had been held by the late GOP Rep. C.W. Bill Young for more than four decades.

The Washington Post’s Paul Kane writes that even for a special election contest the stakes are high for both parties:

Republicans say that if their first-time candidate defeats a seasoned veteran, it will demonstrate just how toxic the health-care law will be for Democrats this fall.

The race is particularly important for Pelosi’s Democrats, who have battled the perception that they have no chance of winning the close to 20 seats they need to claim the majority in November. This district, while leaning Republican in midterm elections, is exactly the sort that Democrats need to win to punch through to majority status, now that it is no longer safely in Young’s possession.

The New York Times’ Lizette Alvarez, meanwhile, notes that outside groups have poured millions of dollars into the election to get an early read on the effectiveness of their campaign messages for the fall:

The barrage of salvos and slogans, many filled with half-truths, is largely paid for by outside groups hoping to influence voters in this quintessential swing district, where independents make up a quarter of registered voters. So many nasty political advertisements, fliers and robocalls about President Obama’s health care law, Social Security, lobbying and abortion rights have hit the airwaves that many voters say it feels as though a presidential election somehow sneaked up on them. More than 105,000 residents have already submitted absentee ballots in a county that prefers early voting.

According to the Center for Public Integrity roughly $12.5 million has been spent in the hotly-contested special election, “but less than one-third of that sum was controlled by the candidates’ own campaigns.”

As of Saturday, more than half of the votes likely to be cast had been submitted, with the GOP advantage doubling over the past week to roughly 4,500. But that may not be enough for Jolly, notes Tampa Bay Times political editor Adam Smith. In a swing district, it’s independents that matter.

Indicative of Jolly’s need to appeal to the middle is the way he’s retooled one of his primary campaign spots for the general election with one key word omitted. The original ad, Bloomberg’s Gregory Giroux observes, sells Jolly as a “conservative in the tradition of Bill Young.” The current version, however, simply says, “David Jolly for Congress. In the tradition of Bill Young.” Jolly, who served as an aide to Young, is using the ad to appeal to Young’s supporters without alienating the more moderate voters he’ll need to carry.

Politico’s Alex Isenstadt reported last week that national Republicans have grown frustrated with Jolly, who voiced his disagreement with an ad the National Republican Congressional Committee had aired targeting Sink. Isenstadt writes:

It is rare for party officials to criticize one of their own candidates, even anonymously, days before an election. One explanation may be so they can point to Jolly — as opposed to the national political mood or the ineffectiveness of attacks against Sink over her support for Obamacare — if he loses.

With the heavy involvement of the national parties and the cascade of outside money rushing into the race, it’s clear both sides see the outcome of Tuesday’s election for more than the single House seat that would come with the victory.


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  • Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who has not ruled out another presidential bid, denounced the Republican establishment at CPAC and said he’s not willing to set aside conservative principles to see the party win elections.

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  • Keep an eye on the Rundown blog for breaking news throughout the day, our home page for show segments, and follow @NewsHour for the latest.


Ruth Tam contributed to this report.

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Questions or comments? Email Terence Burlij at tburlij-at-newshour-dot-org.

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