The FL-13 Special Election: A Proving Ground

The death of veteran Florida Congressman Bill Young (R) in October has led to a March 11 special election that may tell us a great deal about the impending regular general election.

The special election campaign, now turning into a multi-million dollar affair with both parties and all major outside organizations spending heavily, is proving to be a major testing ground for election themes. Both sides will soon see how their proposed general election messages play and, with the district’s electorate split almost evenly regarding the Obamacare law, much will be learned about how the two sides will portray the issue nationally this fall.

Florida’s 13th Congressional District appears to be a political microcosm of the state (Obama-Romney statewide 2012: 50-49 percent; FL-13 Obama-Romney: 50-49 percent), while arguably the Sunshine State itself is often viewed as a viable campaign test model for the entire country. The district is 87.1 percent white, and has the sixth largest population of residents aged 65 or older (22.8 percent of the FL-13 total population) within the state’s 27 congressional districts. Thus, the results and patterns found here should provide some discernible trends from which to base future political behavior in this state and elsewhere.

On paper, the Democrats should be in the driver’s seat to convert the politically marginal western peninsula Tampa Bay district to their column, but polling is consistently showing a close race. During the past decade it was the prevailing belief that the Democrats would win this Pinellas County seat once Young no longer appeared on the ballot, seeing that the region is trending more Democratic. When well-known former Florida Chief Financial Officer and 2010 gubernatorial nominee Alex Sink announced that she would enter the special election, Republican hopes of holding onto the seat dipped even lower. Former congressional aide David Jolly, who is a registered Washington lobbyist, won the Republican special primary with the support of Young’s political organization. Predictably, the Democrats and their allies are depicting him in a negative light because of his service to various clients.

Immediately after the Jan. 14 Republican primary, two polls projected Jolly to a slight lead over Sink. The St. Pete Polls surveys contained some methodological flaws that skewed Republican, but the race still began to attract major national interest, nonetheless.

Now, a new Tampa Bay Times/News Channel 9 poll conducted by Braun Research (Feb. 4-9; 603 FL-13 registered voters) also shows an evolving close race with almost a month still remaining in the special cycle. According to the data, Sink leads Jolly 40-34 percent on the first ballot test and 42-35 percent on the second, with respondents leaning toward each candidate included on the latter. While Sink’s advantage is beyond the margin of polling error on each question, the fact that she is in the low 40s with superior name identification suggests that Jolly still has the ability to gain.

The poll’s other key factor relates to the respondents’ opinions about the Affordable Care Act, and the candidates’ relationship to the issue. Among those sampled, 43 percent favor Obamacare, while 47 percent oppose the new law. Within the segment of those who support Sink, 81 percent also support Obamacare. Turning to Jolly supporters, 84 percent of them oppose the national healthcare law. This suggests that the issue could become turnout defining, especially with advertising from both sides heavily emphasizing the topic.

The combined ads also illustrate how each side will attack and defend the healthcare law. Republicans are hitting Sink for supporting it, emphasizing the resulting health insurance policy cancellations, Medicare cuts, and job loss figures that the Congressional Budget Office published in their latest report. Democrats respond by claiming that Jolly, in this case, and Republicans in general want to return unlimited power to insurance companies in order to deny policies and claims. Sink also uses a line that will likely become prevalent in Democratic spots as this debate spreads throughout the country, saying that she wants to “keep what’s right, and fix what’s wrong” with the healthcare law.

The 13th District special election appears to be heading for a close finish, and though it still should be considered a “Lean Democrat” race today, signs suggest that it is moving toward toss-up territory. Expect to see many more trend-setting messages, and much more money being spent here as we move closer to the March 11 vote. From a national political perspective, it is clear that this race will produce more than just one new member of Congress.

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