Want to know how Obamacare is likely to affect the 2014 midterms? An upcoming Florida special election may provide the best glimpse.
The contest to replace the late Republican Rep. Bill Young is set for March 11 -- just days before the enrollment deadline for the individual health care exchanges.
After failing to land a top recruit, Republicans are relucntantly facing a primary fight between former Young aide David Jolly and state Rep. Kathleen Peters. While Republicans knew for years that Young's eventual retirement would spark a highly competitive race, the longtime Republican's sudden death just weeks after he announced he would not run again accelerated the timeline. The primary will be held on January 14.
Democrats, however, succeeded at clearing the field for 2010 gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink, who got the early backing of both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and EMILY's List.
While special elections are often overstated or overblown, this Florida seat is one of the truest swing districts in the country.
In 2012, Barack Obama just narrowly won the district, 50%-49%, and Young won with 58%. In 2008, Obama won it 51%-48%. But in 2004, it was President Bush who carried the district, 51%-49% over John Kerry.
In 2010, a bad year for Democrats, Sink carried the district with 48.5% in her race for governor, even as she lost statewide to Republican Rick Scott. In the divided Senate race that same year, it was Charlie Crist, running as an independent, who narrowly won the district with nearly 43% in his three-way race.
The Tampa Bay-area district is one of the most competitive in the country, but the pragmatic Young had never been truly challenged, despite Democrats vowing every cycle they would take him on. Without Young on the ticket, the dynamics of the district alone make it a must-win for Democrats who have any hope of winning back the House next year.
Republicans will have to pick their nominee first, and not all are united behind Jolly, seen as the frontrunner.
A former counsel to Young, he's now a lobbyist who has donated to several Democrats, including Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and the now-imprisoned former Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-Ill.).
Jolly got the backing of Young's widow, who said her late husband expressed that he wanted Jolly to succeed him before he died. Jolly was also endorsed by former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, who was seen as Republican's top choice to run in the special election, but he declined. But not all Republicans are on board, especially with the "L-word" describing Jolly. Safety Harbor Mayor Joe Ayoub said he wouldn't run, but said he would back Peters because Washington didn't need another "lobbyist."
Republicans plan to focus on Obamacare as a way to get a leg up on Sink, who will likely have more early resources and name ID over either Republican.
Already, Jolly has gone after Sink for her support of Obamacare. "I am calling on Alex Sink to tell us she either stands with the President’s defense of the mess that has been Obamacare or with the families of Pinellas she now says she wants to represent," he wrote in a recent press release. "We deserve a member of Congress who not only stands with us, but for telling us the truth."
The National Republican Congressional Committee released a web ad and targeted online ads toward women hitting Sink on Wednesday. "Sink stood with President Obama when he said we could keep our health care plan, but that’s simply not true," says a female announcer.
“Democrats are running scared because they know their support of Obamacare is going to hurt them gravely in 2014," said NRCC spokeswoman Katie Prill. "Alex Sink has made it crystal clear that she will support the President’s healthcare law even as 300,000 Floridians are losing their healthcare coverage while even more are forced to pay more. As CFO of Florida, Sink has a record of hurting Florida families, proving she’s a risk voters just can’t afford.”
While Democrats know backlash from health care reform, which still faces a wobbly implementation future as the deadline draws closer, will be the Republicans' number one message, they also point out that Republicans face showdowns over the budget and the debt ceiling in January and February.
Just as Republicans now blame the shutdown for imperiling GOP nominee Ken Cuccinelli's chances at Virginia governor, another shutdown could have the same effect in Florida.
"Time and again, Alex Sink has proven that she is focused on changing how Washington does business by solving problems and creating good jobs – and voters in Pinellas County want leaders who will be a voice for commonsense solutions," said DCCC spokeswoman Emily Bittner. "As House Republicans fail to produce a budget and hurtle this country to a fiscal showdown just weeks before the election, the people of Pinellas will make it clear that they want a representative who will work with both parties on improving lives for middle class families.
But both parties will be closely watching this race on such an even playing field for how to write and refine their 2014 game plan, win or lose.
"It's going to be a really interesting test from a national messaging standpoint," said Florida based Democratic pollster David Beattie, who polled for Sink's CFO and governor campaigns. "How she talks about [health care] is going to be really instructive to a lot of the other Democrats over the next year."