After enduring weeks of non-stop attack ads from all sides, voters are finally hitting the polls in Florida’s 13th Congressional District on Tuesday to choose between Democrat Alex Sink, Republican David Jolly, and Libertarian Lucas Overby.
The race, which has been labeled the most expensive special election in history, is a proxy war for Democrats and Republicans as they test out new midterm election strategies. The Tampa Bay area district, left vacant by the death of longtime Republican Congressman C.W. Bill Young, went 50-49 for President Obama in 2012, making it a rare swing seat in the overwhelmingly polarized and gerrymandered House.
Sink, the Democrats’ 2010 gubernatorial nominee, outraised Jolly by a wide margin, but the bulk of cash in the race didn’t come from the campaigns themselves. Outside spending, which includes the national parties and a variety of liberal and conservative advocacy groups, accounts for $8.8 million of the $12 million that’s been spent on the contest in total. These ads have sometimes overshadowed the candidates: At one point, Jolly complained that a TV spot by the National Republican Congressional Committee distorted his own message.
Republican and conservative groups have gone after Sink for supporting portions of Obamacare, running ads decrying its cuts to Medicare Advantage payments and highlighting canceled insurance plans that didn’t meet the law’s standards. Democratic groups have attacked Jolly for his career as a lobbyist, taking special aim at his work with a client who favored privatizing Social Security. They've also highlighted Sink’s anti-abortion stance, which connects to broader Democratic claims of a Republican “war on women."
Sink led narrowly by 48-45 margin in a Public Policy Polling survey this week and appears to have a modest advantage in early voting, but Republicans are hoping turnout will look more like the 2010 midterms, when young and minority voter participation dropped off, than 2012, where Obama’s presence on the ticket boosted turnout. The district is disproportionately elderly and white, a demographic that’s buffeted the GOP in recent years and tends to vote more reliably in midterm races.
Individual special elections don’t have much predictive effect when it comes to November elections. Democrats won hotly contested House special election contests in New York and Pennsylvania in 2009 and 2010 even as they headed into a disastrous election cycle in which they lost the House.
In the short term, expect whichever party wins to proclaim its victory as a thunderous endorsement of its national message. Expect both sides to run ads with many of the same themes in districts around the country as well. With outside spending surging upwards as November nears, odds are your TV programming will look like Florida’s 13th soon enough.