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FL special election tests midterm strategies for both parties

Republican David Jolly and Democrat Alex Sink,  candidates for Florida's congressional District 13, chat on stage during a break as they participate in a candidate forum in Clearwater, Florida, February 25, 2014.
Republican David Jolly and Democrat Alex Sink, candidates for Florida's congressional District 13, chat on stage during a break as they participate in a candidate forum in Clearwater, Florida, February 25, 2014.

Republicans have been crowing for months that Obamacare will wreak untold devastation on Democratic candidates in the 2014 elections. All the while, Democrats have argued the other side is overreaching and that their all-or-nothing pledge to repeal the health care law will backfire.

Those competing theories will get an early test run next Tuesday in Florida’s 13th Congressional District, where Democrat and former gubernatorial nominee Alex Sink, 65, is squaring off against Republican businessman and lobbyist David Jolly, 41, in a special election.

“There’s a huge number of national folks combing through everything to see what’s going to stick and what they can take on the road to other districts,” Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at University of South Florida, told msnbc.

The seat became vacant when Republican Congressman Bill Young died last October after 43 years in the House. Without a popular incumbent holding it down, the district is as competitive as it gets: voters went for President Obama in 2012 by a razor-thin 50-49 margin.

It’s the kind of pickup opportunity Democrats desperately need to make any dent in the House GOP’s entrenched hold. But it’s also a district where the population skews old and white, a demographic that disproportionately turns out in midterm elections and that Republicans are hoping will help grow their majority this year.

Both sides are working hard to court older voters and outside groups are pouring millions of dollars into ads, many aimed squarely at retirees. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s latest ad attacks Jolly for working as a lobbyist for a conservative millionaire who wants to privatize Social Security. The Chamber of Commerce is running ads attacking Sink for supporting Obamacare and its reductions in Medicare Advantage payments, an attack that figured prominently in the GOP’s highly successful 2010 midterm campaigns. Firing back, Sink has run ads noting Jolly’s call to repeal Obamacare would mean an end to the law’s benefits for seniors as well, which include closing the donut hole for prescription drugs. 

Neither candidate has served in Congress before, giving them some running room to finesse their parties' less popular positions. Sink says she opposes the Medicare Advantage cuts and supports only portions of the Affordable Care Act. House Republicans have repeatedly included the same Medicare cuts in their own budget proposals that Jolly has used to go after Sink, but because Jolly hasn't been in office he's free to distance himself from them. 

That means the politics of the race are sometimes muddled, which may make it difficult to divine a larger meaning from the March 11 results.

The attacks in the race often obscure party positions. In one of the most egregious cases, the National Republican Congressional Committee has run ads knocking Sink for praising Simpson-Bowles, a bipartisan proposal from 2010 to slash long term spending, because it included Social Security and Medicare cuts. It wasn’t too long ago that Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and John Boehner led the party in condemning Obama for ignoring Simpson-Bowles and not taking steps to cut Medicare and Social Security spending. 

Immigration, a major issue in Florida which has not figured prominently in ads, is another area where things have gotten confusing.

In a recent debate, Sink said one reason she supports immigration reform is to ensure businesses can hire legal workers to “clean our hotel rooms or do our landscaping.” Jolly, who emphasizes border security and opposes a path to citizenship, attacked Sink for spreading “bigotry” by implying that immigrants perform low-skilled jobs. Among Republican and Democratic reformers alike, the notion that the service industry is disproportionately reliant on undocumented workers is mostly unremarkable -- Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio defended his own immigration bill last year by declaring “I am not in favor of a housekeeper or a landscaper crossing the border illegally.”

In the same debate, Sink also spoke about undocumented immigrants in the area who had become valedictorians and lawyers

For Jolly, it's an attempt to have his electoral cake without the policy spinach: He's telling immigrant voters that Sink looks down on them while still opposing reforms that their community overwhelmingly supports. 

While Republicans are going on offense over Obamacare in the Florida contest, Democrats are using the race as a test run for their messaging with women. Sink has called Jolly “extreme” for opposing Roe v. Wade and the DCCC has produced online ads highlighting his anti-abortion positions. The party is hoping to boost turnout among young and single women in 2014 by tagging Republicans with an alleged “War on Women.”  

One wild card in the race is the presence of 27-year old libertarian candidate Lucas Overby, who has campaigned as an economic conservative on budget issues and social liberal on gay rights. Polls have shown him getting anywhere from 4 percent to 12 percent of the vote, making him a potential spoiler for either candidate depending on which groups he attracts.

Early voting has already begun and, while the overall results are not yet public, the partisan registration of those who have voted suggests Sink might have an early advantage. But there’s plenty of time left and recent polls are inconsistent at best: A Chamber of Commerce survey late last month found Jolly up 44-42 while a St. Leo University poll from mid-February gave Sink a 46-37 edge.