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Republicans win first election showdown of the year

By Paul Steinhauser, Deirdre Walsh and Dana Bash, CNN
updated 10:01 PM EDT, Mon April 7, 2014
Republican David Jolly speaks during a candidate forum in Clearwater, Florida, on February 25.
Republican David Jolly speaks during a candidate forum in Clearwater, Florida, on February 25.
  • Florida's 13th Congressional District is a swing district in a swing state
  • Republican David Jolly defeats Democrat Alex Sink in the special election
  • Republicans say the victory shows that Democrats are on the defensive with Obamacare
  • Campaign spending topped last year's special U.S. Senate election in Massachusetts

St. Petersburg, Florida (CNN) -- In the first major ballot box test of 2014, the GOP won.

Republican David Jolly 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, Republican Rep. Bill Young, who died in October. Young, first elected to Congress in 1970, was the longest-serving Republican in the House.

With national Republicans framing the race as a referendum on Obamacare and a massive infusion of outside ad money to try to influence the outcome, pundits have looked to the Florida race as a bellwether for November's midterm elections.

Special coverage: 2014 midterm elections

But Jolly didn't mention the health care law in his victory speech and instead said, "This race is not about defending a broken agenda in Washington or advancing a broken agenda in Washington. This race is about defending Pinellas County and serving the people right here in our own community."

Sink, the state's former chief financial officer who narrowly lost the 2010 gubernatorial election, said in a concession statement, "While tonight was not the result we were hoping for, I am proud of the race we have run and so grateful for the countless Pinellas residents, volunteers and supporters who put their faith in our campaign."

Swing district in swing state

Jolly won 48.5% of the vote, and Sink got just under 47%. Libertarian candidate Lucas Overby was a distant third, with just under 5% of the ballots cast.

With Jolly's win keeping the House seat in GOP hands, the Democrats still need win 17 seats in November to regain control of the chamber. Political handicappers say that's a tall order, considering the shrinking number of competitive congressional districts nationwide.

Eight things to watch between now and Election Day

Florida-13, 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.

Attacking Obamacare the right prescription for GOP?

While the candidates said local issues mattered heavily, national Republicans were quick to proclaim Obamacare the biggest loser.

"Tonight, one of (House Democratic Leader) 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," proclaimed Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement.

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

CNN Poll: Support for Obamacare slightly edges up

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

"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.

Tons of outside advertising money was poured into the race, and 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 acknowledged that Obamacare was a major issue. While she highlighted how the Affordable Care Act has helped people, she also noted the law has flaws and said she was open to GOP proposals to amend some of the measure's requirements.

Democrats look to November

Sink was the candidate national Democrats wanted in this race, and she faced nominal opposition in January's primary. Jolly was far from the GOP's dream candidate and had to battle to win the party's nomination. Democrats jumped on his work as a lobbyist who worked for groups pushing to privatize Social Security after he had left Young's staff.

National Democrats, who began to try to lower expectations a few days before the election, said they'll make another run at the district in November.

"Democrats will fight for Florida-13 in the midterm, when the electorate is far less heavily tilted toward Republicans," said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Outside money

Since it's one of a dwindling number of competitive districts and the only game in town, outside money poured into the race, which 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 spend $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.

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

"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."

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