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What we learned from Florida-13

By Paul Steinhauser and Deirdre Walsh, CNN
updated 9:52 PM EDT, Mon April 7, 2014
  • Republican David Jolly narrowly beat Democrat Alex Sink in a special election
  • Outside groups supporting Jolly poured more money into race than Democrats
  • Republicans feel they have found a winning issue on Obamacare

(CNN) -- Here's something shocking.

Democrats and Republicans totally disagree about the significance of the GOP's victory in the first major competitive congressional ballot box test of 2014.

Republican candidate David Jolly narrowly edged out Democrat Alex Sink to win Tuesday's special election in Florida's 13th Congressional District. Jolly will fill out the term of his former boss, longtime Republican Rep. Bill Young, who died in October.

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The race was consistently in the spotlight with national Republicans framing the election as a referendum on Obamacare. They injected a massive infusion of outside ad money into the race and some pundits cast the election as a possible bellwether for November's midterms.

"I think this was a referendum on (President Barack Obama's) policies and on Obamacare, that played out significantly to the disadvantage of (House Democratic Leader) Nancy Pelosi. And I think it sets the tone for what's coming in the fall," Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told CNN Wednesday.

"We've been trying to tell people this is a referendum election, Obamacare is not helping people the way it was promised, and Democrats are going to have a lot of answering to do," Walden added.

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But his counterpart at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sees very little predictive value in the results.

"Special elections are not indicators of the future. They never have been. They never will be. And certainly this is not an indicator of the future," Rep. Steve Israel, the DCCC chairman, told reporters.

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While a contest this far out from Election Day rarely offers a preview of what will actually happen in November, Jolly's victory gives the GOP instant bragging rights.

And the results also illustrate a few things about how the midterm election season may play out.

GOP's convinced Obamacare's bad medicine for Democrats: While the candidates and local matters weighed heavily in the race, Obamacare was also a key issue. And Jolly's victory will only embolden Republican attempts top repeal the Affordable Care Act.

"His (Jolly's) victory shows that voters are looking for representatives who will fight to end the disaster of Obamacare," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and co-chair Sharon Day said in an email blast to reporters.

Many of the ads attacking Sink focused on health care.

"Canceled health plans. Higher premiums. Medicare cuts. People losing their doctors. A disaster for families and seniors. For Alex Sink, the priority is Obamacare. Not us," said the narrator in a TV commercial by the Chamber of Commerce, which backed Jolly.

That was a potent message in a district that's one of the grayest in the nation. Nearly a quarter of all residents in Florida-13 are 65 or older.

Jolly said he was committed to getting rid of Obamacare entirely. Sink recognized that Obamacare was a major issue. While she highlighted how the Affordable Care Act has helped people, she also noted that the law has flaws and said she was open to GOP proposals to amend some of the measure's requirements.

The Democratic National Committee claimed the issue of health care actually kept the contest close.

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"Republicans fell short of their normal margin in this district because the agenda they are offering voters has a singular focus - that a majority of voters oppose - repealing the Affordable Care Act that would return us to the same old broken health care system," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the DNC chair.

Democratic pollster Geoff Garin told reporters that "based on polling we did up until the election, Alex Sink basically neutralized the issue of the Affordable Care Act."

But Garin noted that Obamacare energized the GOP electorate.

"We have to acknowledge that the Affordable Care Act was a motivating issue for Republicans to come out and vote, and less so for Democrats," he said.

Last autumn's flawed rollout of the health care law and the controversy over canceled policies because of Obamacare played into Republican hands.

And the President's inaccurate pledge that "If you like your insurance, you can keep it" under the new health care law is a line that dominated GOP attack ads the past few months.

Even before Tuesday's GOP victory, Republicans pledged to keep the campaign focus on the health care law, even if it starts to gain traction with the public.

A number of Republican strategists CNN reached out to on Wednesday said that while the focus won't be 100% on Obamacare, they admit it will remain a huge part of how they frame the midterms.

Non-partisan analysts agree.

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"The one thing Republicans will take away from this race is that the Obamacare assault worked. We're going to see more and more and more," said CNN Chief National Correspondent John King.

"Regardless of whether or not the election will tell us anything about November, the two political parties will learn lessons from this contest and apply them to future races," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "Jolly's win means it's all about Obamacare for the GOP."

Outside money really mattered: In Sink, national Democrats landed the high-profile and well-known candidate they wanted in this race, and she faced nominal opposition in January's Democratic primary.

Jolly was far from the GOP's dream candidate, and he had to battle to win his party's nomination. The past two months, he faced a barrage of attacks by Democrats on his days as a lobbyist and his work for groups pushing to privatize Social Security. Sink, meanwhile, greatly out-raised, and outspent Jolly.

But support from outside groups gave Jolly a major boost.

Since it's one of a dwindling number of competitive districts and since it was the only game in town, outside money poured into the race. It was the most expensive contest so far this cycle, topping even last year's special U.S. Senate election in Massachusetts.

In addition to the approximate $2.5 million spent by the two campaigns, the party committees and outside groups dished out more than $9 million to run TV and radio ads, other paid media and direct mail, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which monitors outside spending.

The pro-Republican group American Crossroads, which said it spent $500,000 on the contest, said that Florida-13 was just an appetizer

"A lot of us rolled up our sleeves after 2012, studied the Obama playbook and invested in targeted voter turnout and more effective messaging. The Florida CD-13 special was an important test market and there was unprecedented cooperation among outside groups. We intend to keep refining these lessons as we prepare for the fall elections," said Crossroads CEO Stephen Law.

Turnout mattered: Florida-13, which is a swing district in a swing state, covers most of Pinellas County between Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, including parts of St. Petersburg. While Young captured 58% of the vote in his 2012 re-election, President Barack Obama narrowly carried the district in his 2008 and 2012 victories.

So what happened Tuesday?

Jolly won by around 3,500 votes out of some 180,000 cast. A libertarian candidate grabbed just under 5% of the vote.

The plain and simple truth is that Sink lost because Democratic voters didn't vote. Turnout in the 2012 election was nearly double what it was in the special election.

Democratic officials Wednesday said by their calculations, the GOP had a plus-13 advantage in the voting electorate in Tuesday's special election, compared to a plus-five advantage for the Republicans in the district in 2012.

"The reality is Alex Sink was able to narrow a very large Republican advantage in turnout. She did very well with independent voters," said Garin.

And Israel vowed to win the district come November, when he says the electorate will be more slightly more favorable to the Democrats.

"If this election were in November instead of March, I think Alex Sink would have won," Israel added.

A veteran Democratic strategist says his party has some hard work ahead.

"While it is true that a special election often has lower turnout (and thus is more likely to be won by a Republican), I think Democrats spin this loss at their own peril. We lost, period," said CNN contributor Paul Begala.

"It means we have to redouble our efforts to register and turn out the Rising American Electorate: people of color, unmarried women, young people. We will never be able to match the right wing dollar-for-dollar, so we have to beat them voter-to-voter," he said.

Steep road got steeper: The Democrats odds of winning back the House in November just got a little bit slimmer.

With Jolly's win keeping the congressional seat in GOP hands, the Democrats still need win 17 seats in the midterms to regain control of the chamber.

Political handicappers consider that a tall order, considering the shrinking number of competitive congressional districts nationwide.

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