Dem cheerleader Paul Begala was right. There simply is no way to spin it. Democrat Alex Sink’s loss to Republican David Jolly in Tuesday’s special election was an absolute “nightmare” for her party.
Her campaign outspent his, although outside groups evened it up somewhat. She was no unknown backbencher, as she had narrowly lost a race for governor two years ago. Her opponent, a lobbyist who just left his wife and took his 26-year-old girlfriend to his campaign events, probably was no better than the third choice of the local party.
And although the Jolly campaign made some headway with attacks on her huge bonuses as former president of a major Florida bank, she went down because of voter dissatisfaction with both President Obama and his signature legislative accomplishment: Obamacare.
Democratic Party honchos continue to insist candidates are better off going all in for Obamacare. They say the worst is behind us, and as more Americans sign up and start to benefit from the law, Democratic candidates will be happy to have never wavered in their support. But they’re also getting ready to drop a bunch of money on research into how better to message the law and its various impacts to avoid further candidates being sunk like Sink.
No doubt, if you are Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Mark Begich in Alaska, Kay Hagan in North Carolina or Mark Pryor in Arkansas, you would do well to not wait for the results of that study and to start being concerned right now about the impact Obama and Obamacare will have on your electoral hopes. If a swing-to-lean-Democrat House district carried twice by President Obama in a state he also carried twice can’t deliver for Alex Sink, you have to assume – for now – the message is not getting through.
But if Republicans assume they have their blueprint for the midterms, the Jolly mood of Tuesday could turn into a blue mood in November. A number of factors that helped lift Jolly over the finish line may or may not be present for other Republicans later this year. Sink had a slight lead among those who mailed in ballots, but Jolly’s turn-out-the-vote effort provided an edge of more than 5,000 votes out of 52,000 cast on election day. Democrats may not divine the perfect words for Obamacare by November, but they will have the entirety of the Obama turnout machine operating at full strength.
It won’t be enough, as Jim VandeHei of Politico said, to “suck slightly less than Democrats.” Sink did not win, but she did force Jolly to present himself as someone who would work with others to fix Obamacare, as opposed to trashing it on his first day in office. Voters are down on Obama – his poll numbers are at all-time lows, and, given history, are unlikely to recover in any major way. But they want progress. They want problems solved. They want the uninsured covered and the cost curve bent downward.
The good news for Republicans is voters do not now see Obamacare as the solution to this. The administration continues to pump out numbers to show the system has stabilized and people are signing up. But the poll numbers have not budged since December, which indicates the public hasn’t changed its perceptions since the horrific rollout.
For Democrats, a messaging remake can’t come a moment too soon; and that moment will eventually come. Democrats will find success stories, which are more prevalent than Republicans are ready to admit and easier to find than stories of personal – as opposed to group – harm from the legislation. Their outside groups will start to tell those stories, and those stories will be on voters’ minds far more in November than the travails of Alex Sink.
Moreover, the president won’t stand still and let this go down. He knows more than his signature law is at stake. The entire progressive experiment is on trial. If Obamacare is rolled back or repealed, Democrats will have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory on an issue they’ve pushed for nearly a century, and their entire agenda will be essentially dead.
We know Obamacare and the president’s own popularity cost Sink. We don’t know whether either issue will be as powerful for Republicans in November.
If Republicans walk away from Florida thinking they are
playing a pat hand, they could well be enduring their own nightmare come
November. It’s winnable – both the House and the Senate. But it’s going to take
more than sucking less than the Democrats.