Jolly’s Win Sends Democrats Back to the Midterm Drawing Board

In January, noted political analyst Stu Rothenberg called last night’s special election in Florida a “must win” for Democrats. Fortunately, he said, it appeared that the stars were aligned in their favor.

Given all of the advantages that Sink has — the district, her experience and proven electoral success, her money in the bank and her united party — and the problems the GOP nominee will face, shouldn’t the likely Democratic nominee be a clear favorite to win the special election, getting her party one seat closer to the majority in November?

The answer is “yes.”

Rothenberg was exactly right. The district leans left. President Obama won, albeit by close margins, in each of the last two elections. Sink, was also an ideal candidate with a long pedigree and a voting record that closely matches the district’s makeup. Remember, she was Democrat’s gubernatorial nominee two years ago—when Republicans were coasting to victories in the unlikeliest of places—and only lost to GOP Rick Scott by a mere 61,550 votes.

On the other hand, Republican candidate David Jolly was considered a long-shot. He is a political neophyte who has never run for office. In fact, he spent some years as a lobbyist, which means that he’s easily cast as a “Washington insider.” And he was vastly outspent. According to NBC News Sink outspent Jolly by a massive 4-to-1 margin on the airwaves. Things were so bad that party insiders appeared, just last week, to be managing the midterm messaging fallout from an anticipated loss. POLITICO reported:

Over the past week, a half-dozen Washington Republicans have described Jolly’s campaign against Democrat Alex Sink as a Keystone Cops operation, marked by inept fundraising, top advisers stationed hundreds of miles away from the district in the state capital and the poor optics of a just-divorced, 41-year-old candidate accompanied on the campaign trail by a girlfriend 14 years his junior. The sources would speak only on condition of anonymity.

And yet Jolly won. Why? Well, first he was a principled candidate who was obviously smart and displayed well-thought-out policy positions. But chief among those was that he supported total repeal of Obamacare, whereas his Democratic opponent continued to say that “we need to keep what’s right and fix what’s wrong.”

Voters didn’t buy that attempt to straddle the fence. That puts Democrats in quite the bind. It’s clear that the national party saw this special election as an opportunity to test drive what they assumed would be their winning Obamacare message for the midterms. They were clearly hoping that the “fix, don’t repeal” would assuage the moderate conservatives who demand changes and the middle-of-the-road liberals who don’t want to see the law completely undone. But Sink’s inability to win, despite holding nearly every advantage, reveals the depth of the anger and distrust over Obamacare.

That will send Democrat party operatives back to the drawing board, but with few options. They can’t embrace Obamacare, especially since the latest Kaiser Foundation survey found that a mere 8 percent of people want to keep the law as it is. It’s impossible to win anything with 8 percent support on the central issue of the election. But they’re also unlikely to openly call for the repeal of the law; and despite their best efforts, Republican candidates won’t let them stay completely silent. So what do they do?

Well they’ll probably stick with the “fix Obamacare” approach, but merely amp up their criticism and maybe suggest some bigger, meatier changes. But even that may not be enough. Why? Because the playing field only gets harder. Politico reports:

In fact, the district should have been one of the Democratic Party’s most winnable targets. Of the 37 GOP-held seats that the Cook Political Report ranks as the most vulnerable to Democratic takeover, only 11 are more Democratic-friendly than Florida’s 13th. The district has just a narrow GOP registration edge.

“If the Democrats can’t win with their former gubernatorial candidate with 100 percent name ID, where are they going to win?” asked Guy Harrison, a former National Republican Congressional Committee executive director. “When the Democrats look at their playing field, they don’t have too many better seats to target. They don’t have too much of a prayer for winning the majority.”

The truth hurts. But Democrats can’t say they weren’t warned about Obamacare. Heck they were even offered myriad opportunities to do the very thing they claim to want to do: Fix it.