Tuesday’s Special Election defeat for Democrat Alex Sink in Florida’s 13th Congressional District holds several lessons for the Democratic party going forward. Three weeks ago we were hearing about problems with the campaign which we highlighted in this article. That article got lots of push back from Democrats throughout the state, but as the election drew nearer our sources were reporting to us the same issues as three weeks ago. Nonetheless, hope springs eternal and the thinking was that Sink would underperform but still win by a small margin. Unfortunately, we were wrong.
The national narrative is about the Affordable Care Act being unpopular. From my vantage point that is not the biggest issue. Here are some quick thoughts.
- Message – Running a campaign designed to woo independent voters and some Republicans in what is essentially a turnout war is foolish. Instead of doubling down in defense of the Affordable Care Act, the candidate began by conceding problems existed with it. This is in direct contrast to what potential Democratic Gubernatorial nominees Charlie Crist and Nan Rich are saying. A failure to convincingly highlight senior and veterans issues made a difference in this race. White (non-Jewish) voters in these areas tend to focus on senior, military, health and environmental issues. The Democratic messaging on all these things was poor, and the attacks on Jolly related to Social Security and Medicare flat out did not work. This is an old Democratic trick/scare tactic in Florida. More often than not it is not working anymore.
- Demographics – Florida Democrats have a problem in coastal districts which have been traditionally Republican even if they vote for Democrats at the very top of the ticket. This has been apparent in State House and Senate districts in coastal areas for sometime. It has been a problem for many years in the Broward-Palm Beach coastal seats which lie within traditionally Republican parts of Democratic counties and continues to be a problem in Pinellas. While the nation may be becoming less white as a whole, the inability of Democrats to consistently win in white middle-class areas in Florida where voters tend to sit in the middle or lean left is a problem.
- Money – Democrats long complain about being outspent, often using it as an excuse for poor election results. While the Republicans and their right-wing allies spent a ton of money, the Democrats and aligned outside groups actually spent close to a million dollars more according to The Hotline. So the tired old complaint about money does not apply in this election.
- Base turnout – Once again Florida Democrats believed winning “moderates” and “independents” was the key. This being a Special Election turning out the base was always going to be the ball game. Despite a massive campaign effort that was better funded than the opposition, the Democrats lost. The Republican nominee despite being shunned by large elements of his party’s establishment ran further to the right than William Cramer or Bill Young ever did (the Republican holders of this seat for the last 60 years) and won.
- Tough year ahead – While many Democrats across the state are hoping for a big year privately many insiders I speak to would simply like to come back to Tallahassee with as many legislators and send the same number of members of Congress to Washington. After last night, that looks like the best the Democrats may be able to hope for.
Going back to my time in the Young Democrats during the mid 1990s, the Bill Young seat was talked about as one that would flip for certain when he passed away or retired. Pinellas County has been trending towards the Democrats for twenty years. But the Republicans remain a formidable force locally, something reinforced in legislative elections. Somehow in this the most environmentally conscious of counties the Democrats managed to find a way to lose to a Republican who said the Federal Government has no role in the Climate Change debate. That in itself is an accomplishment of dubious distinction, and reinforced why many local Republicans were petrified of Jolly being nominated.
Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz the Chair of the DNC tweeted that this has been a Republican seat for 60 years. What she did not mention is that this is the furthest right a GOP candidate had run in the area in that period and that the Democrats have won this district at the top of the ticket in the last three election cycles (2008, 2010 and 2012).
Just last week Wasserman-Schultz said “A victory for sink, all but assured according to our numbers, means a victory for those who embrace the ACA and believe it to be the best thing to happen to America since Social Security.”
What a difference a week and sobering dose of reality makes.