November’s elections are a distant concern for most people, notwithstanding the fascination that both the process and the outcome hold for a politically oriented minority. For the next seven weeks, this group will pay rapt attention to a small sliver of Florida’s Gulf Coast.
There, in a swing district near the middle of a swing state, we will see a preview of how this year’s congressional campaigns might play out.
But “preview” may not be the best description for the special election in Florida’s 13th congressional district. “Barometer” may be more apt. The March 11 contest between Democrat Alex Sink and Republican David Jolly might give us a good idea of how the nationwide elections would result if they were being held simultaneously. However, there will be eight months between the Florida special election, to fill the remaining term of the late Rep. C.W. Bill Young, and national balloting to determine control of the next Congress. In politics, a lot can change in eight months.
Though both parties will be watching closely, at first glance Democrats seem to have considerably more at stake than Republicans in the special election. National party leaders and allies such as EMILY’s List are, accordingly, committing more resources to help Sink take the seat.
The district and its predecessors have not failed to send a Republican to the House of Representatives in almost 60 years. Knowing that, you might wonder why Democrats are trying so hard, and why Sink - a former bank executive who narrowly lost the governor’s race to Rick Scott four years ago - is betting her political career on the 13th District.
But this is a district that broke narrowly for President Obama in his 2012 re-election bid. It has a growing share of Latino and nonwhite voters, and Sink has the advantage of being a woman who is running against a man who represents a party that has a problem with female voters. Democrats think they can win with Sink. She had no primary opponent, while Jolly had to survive a primary against two challengers. Having husbanded her resources, Sink begins the general election campaign with more than six times the cash held by her opponent.
Still, even a Democrat victory will do very little to affect control of the House. The special election only matters for the duration of the current Congress, where the GOP holds a comfortable edge. Sink would have to win again in November to make it to the next Congress, and once it convenes, the Republicans are still very likely to hold a House majority. There simply are not enough competitive races across the country for Democrats to have much of a shot at seizing control, barring a political disaster this year for the GOP.
I don’t think Democrats are counting heavily on winning House control. Why, then, are they so interested in seeing Sink defeat Jolly?
The answer lies in the Senate rather than the House, and in contests far from the cities of St. Petersburg and Sarasota, where the March race will be decided. While Sink will be running against Jolly - a former congressional staffer and Washington lobbyist whom she portrays as a handmaiden of big business - Jolly will essentially be running against Obamacare and the cast of characters responsible for it, including the president, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
This is going to be the dominant theme of Republican races all over the country. Jolly will tell voters that a vote for Sink is a vote to retain Obamacare, while a vote for him is a vote to repeal and replace it. If Sink can survive this onslaught, her win will serve as a morale boost for embattled Democrats elsewhere, especially vulnerable female Democrats in Republican-leaning states such as Louisiana and North Carolina, where Sens. Mary Landrieu and Kay Hagan, respectively, face difficult races. In politics, boosting morale means boosting fundraising, so Democrats are panting to claim an early victory in Florida.
If winning the special election is strategically valuable to Democrats, then denying Democrats that victory is strategically important to Republicans. A victory by Jolly could enhance the sense of nervousness, possibly bordering on dread, among some Democrats who fear Obamacare’s legacy. It is not yet clear that national Republicans and their supporters have fully recognized this, however.
So you might want to take a little time away from the sports pages come March, when baseball’s spring training will be in full swing in and around Florida’s 13th District. Arguably the most interesting, and certainly the most important, preseason contest in Florida will be happening at the polls rather than on the ballfields.