Republican wins Florida congressional race seen as test on Obamacare

Republicans scored a significant victory in a special congressional election Tuesday, holding onto a seat in a swing district in Florida that Democrats had high hopes of capturing after a campaign that focused heavily on President Obama’s healthcare law.

With all precincts reporting, Republican David Jolly held a 3,400-vote margin over Democrat Alex Sink in the district, which stretches along the Gulf Coast north of St. Petersburg. The returns remain unofficial until final mail-in and provisional ballots can be counted.

The two parties and allied groups spent upward of $12 million on the brief campaign, about six times more than the average full-year House campaign in the last election.

The money financed a deluge of television ads, robo-calls and mailers, mostly centered on national issues. Both parties saw the special election as a good opportunity to try out campaign themes they hope to stress this fall.

Special elections "give a test bed of issues and how they play out," National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) told reporters Tuesday before the votes were reported.

“You can test messages, and you can test strategies, and you can test your theories on voter turnout and ID.”

The GOP theory in this case was that a heavy emphasis on Obamacare would motivate conservative voters to head to the polls, making up for Jolly’s drawbacks as a candidate, which included his current profession, Washington lobbyist, and his relative lack of money. Spending by outside groups narrowed the gap between his money and Sink’s.

Jolly repeatedly called for repeal of Obamacare, while Sink argued that the law should be fixed but not scrapped.

While both sides cautioned in advance of the voting against over-interpreting the results of special elections, that Republican bet paid off, which is bad news for Democratic strategists. Voters in the Florida district are significantly whiter and older than the national average, but so are the swing voters in many of the states that will hold elections this year that could determine control of the Senate.

Democrats sought ahead of the voting to tamp down expectations, noting that Republicans have a big advantage in the district’s registered voters. But Obama carried the district in both 2008 and 2012.

In both of those years, voter turnout was significantly higher than in this off-cycle election, underscoring the advantage Democrats have in presidential years and the corresponding problem they face in midterm contests.

The special election stemmed from the death last fall of Republican C.W. Bill Young, who had represented the area for nearly 42 years. Before he became a lobbyist, Jolly served as an aide to Young.

Twitter: @DavidLauter

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