WASHINGTON -- Republicans and Democrats had their talking points ready when the results of the special election in Florida's 13th Congressional District rolled in Tuesday night. Republicans hailed David Jolly's victory over Democrat Alex Sink as a sign of a big year ahead. Democrats said they were well pleased, despite the loss.
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That's the nature of special elections, which are fragile vehicles for making predictions.
Some special elections do mean something: A Republican victory in May 1994 in a Kentucky district held for 40 years by the Democrats turned out to be the first sign of a GOP tsunami in November. But most of these one-offs mean little: A Democratic victory in a 2010 special election in a seat long held by Democrats in Pennsylvania proved to be a false indicator of what turned out to be a Republican landslide nationally months later.
Right now, no one is certain what the Florida election will mean, but everyone will study it for clues.
This was an election in which more than $12 million was spent by the candidates and their outside allies to influence the outcome. Not many other congressional races will feel the full onslaught of the new world of campaign finance or the intensity of the effort by national campaign committees. So step back from the volleys of claims and counterclaims by each side about how well their side did and what it means for November.
Several elements are worth watching to assess the months ahead. The first is the potency of the Affordable Care Act as an issue that Republican can use to propel them to victories in November. Both sides saw the Florida election as a trial run to test arguments for the fall. For Republicans, that message is "repeal and replace" Obamacare. For Democrats, it is not to argue that the law isn't without flaws, but that the solution is to fix and improve it, not scrap it.
Republicans cast the outcome as a stark repudiation of Obamacare. "Tonight, one of Nancy Pelosi's most prized candidates was ultimately brought down because of her unwavering support for ObamaCare, and that should be a loud warning for other Democrats running coast to coast," Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in his statement Tuesday night.
Democrats say their pre-election polling showed something different, that an aggressive effort to meet the Republicans head on over the future of the health-care law can neutralize the issue. Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who worked for Sink, said her message of fixing the law was far more popular among voters in surveys than was Jolly's call to get rid of Obamacare.
"We definitely were aggressive and pro-active in framing the debate in those terms," he said. "The campaign made a decision early on to engage in the issue rather than run away from the issue. . . . We made this a debate and a choice about not whether it's a perfect law or imperfect law but whether it should be fixed and improved or repealed."
But will incumbent Democratic senators in red states follow the Sink strategy, or will they run away from the health-care law?
Democrats have long struggled to win the political and public relations battle over Obamacare. Their hope is that by later this year, if enrollments come close to their targets and the website HealthCare.gov works smoothly, that the terms of the debate will shift in their direction. We have heard this before. But Democrats suggest that, as the implementation continues, Republicans could be forced to modulate their messaging on Obamacare.
Republicans remain confident that, on balance, public perceptions of the law and its flaws will remain a major political liability for Democrats. But on Wednesday morning, House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, wrapped the health-care law into a broader critique of the president's policies.
At a news conference, he credited Jolly's victory to the candidate's focus on jobs and the economy, which he called the top issue for voters. Boehner linked Obamacare to that problem, saying it has contributed to the sluggish jobs growth. It will be worth watching how Republicans play the issue in the months ahead.
Another aspect of the campaign year that will shape the outcome in November is the state of the Obama presidency. The results of the Florida special election coincided with the release of a new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll. The survey puts the president's approval rating at 41 percent -- the lowest recorded in the NBC-WSJ polls during the Obama presidency.
Bill McInturff, the Republican pollster who is co-director of the survey, said President Obama is being "taken off the field" for the midterms other than for helping to raise money for the party committees. Fred Yang, his Democratic counterpart, noted that, for Democrats, "the wind is in our faces" this year.
Presidential approval is a key barometer not just in presidential election years but in midterm elections as well. Obama's rating should worry Democratic candidates as much or more than then state of his health-care law.
A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll had him at 46 percent. Overall, the president's average approval rating, based on a number of recent polls, remains about 43 percent. Democrats need that number to be higher.
The NBC-Wall Street Journal poll also found that part of the president's problem is dissatisfaction among members of his own party. Twenty percent of Democrats disapprove of the way he is handling his job right now, the highest ever in an NBC-WSJ survey.
That softness points to another issue to keep watching: who is motivated to vote. Obama twice won the 13th District in Florida. But in midterm elections, the electorate tilts more Republican. In a special election, Democrats argued, it tilts even more Republican than in midterm elections. All that may be accurate, but it goes to the question of who will turn out in November.
Democrats know that a key to holding down their losses will be how successful they are in replicating the composition of the electorates from presidential years. They did a good job of that in last year's Virginia gubernatorial election and are pouring money into voter identification and turnout operations in the most contested races. They will need to match that effort in November.
The Florida special election was an early look at the political climate this year.
Democrats had an excellent candidate with statewide experience. Republicans fielded a rookie who happened to be a lobbyist and their party's image remains at low ebb -- and they won. Both parties will go to school on the lessons learned and should be clear-eyed in their conclusions.
But a loss is a loss, and Democrats ought not to underestimate that.