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Fla. contest could provide preview of 2014 healthcare debate

By Paul Demko
Posted: March 10, 2014 - 7:00 pm ET

Healthcare has been at the center of a nasty, expensive special election in Florida that could serve as a preview of the fall congressional elections.

The Tuesday contest between Democrat Alex Sink and Republican David Jolly has been dominated by attack ads from outside groups often focusing on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and Medicare. Sink has been pilloried as a fervent supporter of Obamacare, while Jolly has been accused of lobbying to privatize Medicare. Attacks on both candidates have often blurred the lines between fact and fiction.

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The candidates themselves have staked out more nuanced stances on the ACA. Sink hasn't run away from the law. Instead, she's vowed to work on a bipartisan basis to fix problems.

That in itself is noteworthy considering how toxic the issue was for Democrats during midterm elections four years ago, said Anthony Brunello, a political science professor at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., who has been closely tracking the contest. He points out that polling on the issue has shown the electorate divided on the controversial law.

“Alex Sink has a reasonable chance to win this election,” Brunello said. “The healthcare issue isn't killing her.”

Jolly has argued that Republicans must put forth an alternative vision for healthcare. “We can't just say Obamacare is bad. We have to have creative solutions,” he told Fox News last month.

The outcome of the contest to replace 11-term Rep. C.W. Bill Young, who died in October, will shape electoral strategies in the months ahead. In particular, it will help determine how central healthcare issues—and the ACA, in particular—will be in messaging by campaigns and independent expenditure groups in other heavily contested races.

“Both parties have been testing out messages here that they will take across the country to competitive districts,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.

Polling has consistently shown the race too close to call. The latest survey, conducted by Public Policy Polling, had Sink with a statistically insignificant 3% lead. Further complicating matters is the presence of a libertarian candidate, Lucas Overby, who's been topping 5% in most polls. Typically, that would be bad news for Republicans, but in this instance it's uncertain if his presence on the ballot is a bigger problem for Sink or Jolly. Overby's permissive views on issues such as marijuana legalization and gay marriage could prove attractive to younger voters who typically skew Democratic.

”The wildcard here is Lucas Overby and the libertarians,” Brunello said. “I think he could draw off from Alex Sink just as much as he could draw off Jolly.”

Roughly three quarters of the $12 million spent on the contest has come from independent expenditure groups, according to an analysis by the Tampa Bay Tribune. That's left the candidates griping that they're not in control of the messaging for their own campaigns. It's also created tensions between Jolly and national GOP political groups over some of their tactics.

Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, noted that the race isn't a perfect test case for looking at how healthcare issues might play out in 2014 congressional elections. Sink started the race with much greater name recognition, having run for governor in 2010, and has raised significantly more money than Jolly. In addition, Republicans have attempted to tar Sink as a carpetbagger, since she only recently moved into the district.

“It's difficult to isolate Obamacare and its saliency in this race because there's so many other factors,” Gonzales said.

According to the Cook Partisan Voting Index, Florida's 13th Congressional District, which is entirely in Pinellas County, has a one percentage-point GOP tilt. But Obama carried the district in the last two presidential contests, albeit by less than one percentage point in 2012.

Early voting has skewed toward registered Republicans. But there's evidence Sink may be picking up some of those GOP votes. “Toss a coin, and you'll have as good a shot at picking the winner as by analyzing the votes cast so far,” wrote Adam Smith, political editor of the Tampa Bay Times.

Turnout for the special election is expected to be miniscule. In 2012, 330,000 individuals cast ballots. Most educated guesses point to fewer than 200,000 voters on Tuesday. That also makes it problematic as a bellwether for 2014 elections.

“There is one certainty in the race,” Gonzales wrote in Roll Call on Monday. “The winning party will overplay the results, the losing party underplay it, and the lessons from the election will likely be somewhere in the middle.”

Follow Paul Demko on Twitter: @MHpdemko

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