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Republicans' CD13 win gives Florida Democrats a bad case of déjà vu


It happened again.

Another mid-term election year. Another Democratic loss. Another Republican win.

This time, the scene was the special election in St. Petersburg-based Congressional District 13, where Republican David Jolly carried more than 48.4 percent of the vote to Democrat Alex Sink’s 46.5 percent, according to initial results Tuesday.

Jolly’s 1.9 percentage-point victory came at a crucial time for the Republican Party of Florida. It watched Democrats gain legislative and congressional seats in 2012, when President Obama won the nation’s largest swing state for the second time.

But without Obama on the ticket, something weird happens to the Florida Democratic Party and its candidates in big mid-term elections: They lose swing races. Though this was a special election in a mid-term year, the pattern remains.

"Special elections are not an indicator of the future," U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, the DCCC chair said Wednesday morning, lamenting the close loss. "Special elections are not predictive, they are instructive." 

Israel said Democrats will work on "modeling, persuasion messages."

And Sink Pollster Geoff Garin noted that Republicans were more motivated to vote over Obamacare -- a major issue in the race -- than Democrats. He said the biggest problem was Democrats dropped off at a greater rate than Republicans in a race where 49,000 fewer people voted than in the 2010 midterms.

So while the race might not be predictive, it sure sounds familiar. 

There’s a reason every one of the four statewide offices based in Tallahassee is controlled by Republicans. Democrats seem to muster the energy to come out in droves in presidential election years.

Then Democrats disproportionately stay home two years later. Republicans get revenge.

Except for 2006, when Sink won the state’s CFO race in a Democratic wave year, the GOP has dominated in mid-term elections, when the levers of state power are up for grabs. Republicans have controlled the Legislature since the mid-1990s and the governor’s mansion since 1998 (yes, Gov. Charlie Crist briefly became an independent and is now a Democrat running against Gov. Rick Scott).

So is CD13 a one-off or part of a trend? We’ll see.

What’s clear, however, is Florida Republicans needed a win. Gov. Rick Scott is endangered. He has gone up early with a noteworthy ad buy. The GOP last year lost local elections from Homestead to St. Petersburg, where Scott’s face was used against the GOP in mailers. And Republicans lost a special election in for Tampa Bay-area state House District 36.

Those Democratic wins made the vestiges of Obama’s organization look formidable. But Tuesday’s Republican win in CD13 made the Republican Party’s once-vaunted turnout machine look vaunted again.

Heading into Tuesday, everybody said and the polls showed this was a coin-toss election. A general truism was proven right: the smaller the electorate, the more likely the Republicans win. Turnout was only 40 percent, far lower than in 2012 when Obama carried the district by a point. Sink, when she ran for governor in 2010, carried the district by a bigger margin.

CD13 isn't like the state in two big respects: It's heavily white and registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by about 3 percentage points. A loss of 2 points certainly isn't bad. But it's still a loss.

Statewide, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 4 points, or about 485,000 voters right now. Again, despite that edge, Democrats have failed to turn out their base in repeated governors' races.

After 2008, Obama swept Florida and Democrats surged. Then he stumbled on Obamacare. Democrats then lost big in 2010. Scott became governor, beating Sink.

The pattern looks eerily familiar. Obama won again in 2012. Then he stumbled on Obamacare again and then....?

But it’s not 2010 again. And the political climate is definitely not like 2008. Instead, 2014 might be a slack-tide election.

Whoever gets his base out wins. That’s pretty cliché. But it’s true.

Ask Alex Sink. Her campaign did a great job of messaging to independents and crossover voters. It made sense. It’s a swing district. But the swing voters needed to come out more. And they didn't. Sink surrogates talked about climate change and oil drilling and abortion.

Jolly was more red meat, focused more heavily on Republicans and Obamacare.

There will be a temptation to cast this as a referendum on Obamacare. True, it’s a negative. It had an effect. But this race was also a contest between two flawed candidates and two tough campaigns in a tough district.

While the effect of the messaging can be argued, this was a referendum on turnout. And Republicans won. 

Credit goes to Jolly's campaign brains: Sarah Bascom, Marc Reichelderfer and Nick Hansen. Data Targeting did Jolly's research and The Victory Group produced his ads. They were up against a real pro in Sink's campaign manager Ashley Walker, who led Obama's Florida operation. Walker, however, had a tougher electorate to work with in CD13 than in Florida.

Heading into the governor's race, Crist has an Obama team guiding him, and he has been moving farther and farther left now that he's a Democrat. He seems to understand base elections. But it's a delicate balancing act. And whether the party-switcher can pull it off is anyone's guess.

If Crist loses, he'll be the fourth Tampa Bay Democrat in a row to go down in a governor's race.

Right now, polls show he's ahead. But polls change. And they can be wrong.

Look what happened in CD13. Most pre-Election Day polls were slightly off when it came to their toplines: Sink lost (albeit, her lead was within the margin of error, a tossup). One pollster stood out: Tony Fabrizio, who produced the only recent major public poll showing Jolly up by 2 (the margin he won by). Fabrizio, incidentally, is Scott’s pollster. And he was a guiding force in guiding Scott’s 2010 campaign.

Pre-Election Day polls were proven right in one regard: Sink won the early ballots cast (a feat for Democrats who normally lose vote-by-mail absentee ballots). But the polls also indicated Jolly would win Election Day voters.

And he won them big: carrying 12.2 percent of Election Day votes. The campaign likely needed to get to 10 percent to be comfortable. And Jolly blew past it. Consider: 69 percent of the electorate voted early in person and by absentee ballot, backing Sink 48-46 percent. But it wasn't enough of a margin to overcome Jolly's 54-42 percent lead on Tuesday.

The takeaway: focus on your base and dance with them that brung ya.

Fortunately for Republicans and unfortunately for Sink (and perhaps Crist), Democratic voters don't have enough interest in consistently showing up to the ball.

-- This post was updated Wednesday with comments from Steve Israel