Everybody wants to over-hype the significance of by-elections. Why? Because we’re all political junkies who can’t wait for November. Every tiny little piece of data must mean something for the final results, right?! (Do you have any glue for me to sniff while I wait?)
But okay. Surely, the Florida-13 victory by Republican David Jolly over Alex Sink isn’t completely meaningless either. Democrats had the candidate they wanted in this race (they actually forced out a local pol to get Sink the nomination) and she outraised the congressman-elect by $1.5 million. They faced a lobbyist opponent with personal issues — a divorce, a girlfriend people referred to as his “child bride,” and an auto accident from decades ago in which he’d killed someone. His lobbying career left him open to attacks about wanting to privatize Social Security — and there was a time (before Obamacare) when that attack really worked against Republicans, by the way.
When Republicans were having their nasty little primary in January, I thought Alex Sink, D, was a shoo-in. I remembered old conversations I’d had with Republican operatives and conservative activists in off-the-record briefings years ago, about how the district would flip to the Dems the minute Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., decided to retire.
And don’t take my word for it. Let’s go back a few months and look at what Stu Rothenberg had to say about the race back in January:
The Race Democrats Can’t Afford to lose
It’s rare in politics that anything other than a presidential contest is viewed as a “must win” — but the special election in Florida’s 13th District falls into that category for Democrats.
A loss in the competitive March 11 contest would almost certainly be regarded by dispassionate observers as a sign that President Barack Obama could constitute an albatross around the neck of his party’s nominees in November. And that could make it more difficult for Democratic candidates, campaign committees and interest groups to raise money and energize the grass roots….
I wrote something similar two weeks ago, and also noted that Alex Sink had an immense fundraising lead — which persisted through election day.
This is a nearly pure fair-fight district. Long before the death of Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., Republicans feared it would be lost whenever he retired. So the fact that this is a real race — and that the Democrat is showing signs of blowing it — is rather significant…
…One important note about this race is that Sink, who was not in Congress in 2009-2010 and never had to walk the plank of voting for Obamacare, is not shying away from the law. She has given interviews that put her squarely on her party’s side of the issue. The way she has framed it — with Obamacare as an exciting opportunity to end “job lock” — creates a test case for the Obama administration’s talking-points about the unpopular law, and of Obamacare’s efficacy as a Republican campaign issue.
So what is the lesson here? Don’t get too excited, Republicans. This only confirms what we knew already — the political environment is really awful for Democrats right now. I believe the way to look at the Florida-13 result is to compare it to the roughly 30 Republican congressional districts that Democrats identified in the first and second tiers of their “Red to Blue” program, shown on the map below in yellow (first tier) and orange (second tier).
So, how many of these look like better opportunities than Florida-13 was just now? I’m guessing maybe 5 of them, and even that might be generous. Maybe New York-11, whose incumbent likes to break people in half like a boy. Maybe California-31, which Republicans only kept in 2012 because of a fluke in California’s goofy new primary system.
Other than that, I don’t know — and Democrats probably need to pick up 19 seats currently held by Republicans to win the House back. Just look at similarly situated districts — open seats with nearly even partisan leans, like Virginia-10, Iowa-3 and New Jersey-3. Tonight’s result casts new doubt on Democrats’ ability to gain ground this fall in seats like these and others (say, Montana’s at-large seat) that appear far more challenging.
The bottom line is that Democrats are probably going to lose seats in the House this year. The political environment, as demonstrated by the new WSJ/NBC poll, is toxic for them. Obama’s approval ratings are miserable and Obamacare is an enormous drag.