Yesterday’s congressional special election was expected to be close and it was. The tricky part is answering the “what does it all mean?” question.
Republican David Jolly has won the special election in Florida’s 13th Congressional District, defeating Democratic candidate Alex Sink and Libertarian Lucas Overby.With all precincts reporting, Jolly holds a lead of about 3,400 votes, capturing 48.43% of the vote to 46.56% for Sink and 4.83% for Overby. Sink has conceded the race.
We’ve known for weeks that the prevailing party would over-hype the results – Greg Sargent has insisted all along that this is a mistake, long before we knew who’d win, but most of the political world has ignored him – and the spin machine has been largely out of control over the last 12 hours.
Part of the trouble in analyzing (or overanalyzing) a race like this is that Florida’s 13th district is … what’s the word … quirky. The Democratic message is mildly persuasive: this is a district Republicans have held for a half-century and which George W. Bush twice carried easily. Sink was a clumsy candidate who didn’t even live in the district until quite recently, but she forced Republicans to spend over $5 million to narrowly keep a red seat red.
But the Republican message this morning also happens to be true: this is a district President Obama also carried twice. If Democrats expect to avoid a very rough 2014 cycle, this is exactly the kind of competitive district they need to win – and the fact that a well-known, well-financed Dem couldn’t even get 47% of the vote is rather alarming.
If both spins are compelling, what’s the broader takeaway from the results? I’d argue there probably isn’t one.
It’s only natural for the political world to study races like these. We want to look for trends and patterns. We want to see one event and be able to successfully extrapolate from it. But low-turnout special elections are inherently weird, especially in the middle of March. It’s unsatisfying, but it’s reality.
Those arguing that Democrats need to be more competitive in districts like this one are entirely correct. But it was just as easy to say Republicans needed to be able to win in New York’s 23rd in 2009, right before they lost, which told us nothing about the 2010 midterms. And Republicans also needed to be more competitive in Kathy Hochul’s district in 2011, right before the GOP candidate lost, which didn’t offer any meaningful clues about the broader electorate, either.
And therein lies the point: these isolated races often don’t tell us much. Indeed, consider the special elections from the last few election cycles.
In the 109th Congress (2005 and 2006), going into the November 2006 midterms, there were four U.S. House special elections – Republicans won three, Democrats won one, and neither party flipped any seats. Did this offer hints about the Democratic wave that would sweep the GOP out of their majorities in both chambers? No.
In the 110th Congress (2007 and 2008), going into the 2008 elections, there were 12 U.S. House special elections – Republicans won four, Democrats won eight, and Dems successfully turned three “red” seats “blue.” Were these Democratic gains an “omen” of things to come? Maybe a little.
In the 111th Congress (2009 and 2010), going into the 2010 midterms, there were nine U.S. House special elections – Republicans won two, Democrats won seven. Of particular interest, from March ‘09 to May ‘10, Dems won seven straight special elections, even flipping one district Republicans had held for more than a century. Did this offer evidence of the burgeoning Republican wave? Not at all.
In the 112th Congress (2011 and 2012), going into the 2012 elections, there were six U.S. House special elections – Republicans won two, Democrats won four. Each party flipped one district. What did this portend? Not much.
And so far in the 113th Congress (2013 and 2014), there have been seven U.S. House special elections – including Jolly, Republicans have won five, Democrats have won two, but in each case, the party has kept the seat it held before.
Democratic officials have spent the last several months worrying about 2014 turnout. Yesterday’s results reinforced those fears. That’s not exactly an exciting lesson about the race’s significance, but it has the benefit of being true.