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POLITICS: Campaigns

Republican David Jolly wins Florida-13 special election, narrowly

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Michael Barone,Republican Party,Democratic Party,Florida,2014 Elections,Campaigns,Alex Sink,David Jolly

Republican David Jolly has defeated Democrat Alex Sink by a 49-percent to 47-percent margin in the special election in Florida's 13th congressional district, according to current returns.

This is a district that was represented by Republican Bill Young, who was first elected in 1970, until his death last year. His predecessor, William Cramer, was the first Republican elected in Florida in modern times, in 1954, when the district included all of Pinellas County (St. Petersburg, Clearwater) and Hillsborough County (Tampa).

Cramer won 51 percent to 49 percent in 1954, after losing by the same margin in 1952; his victory was due to the increasing number of Northerners, especially retirees, moving to St. Petersburg in the 1950s. Cramer ran for the Senate in 1970 and lost to the surprise Democratic nominee Lawton Chiles, who was re-elected in 1976 and 1982 and was elected governor in 1990 and re-elected (narrowly, over Jeb Bush) in 1994. So you might say that this was a Republican holding onto a seat that has been Republican for nearly 60 years.

But some other numbers tell a different story. The current 13th district includes most of Pinellas County, minus heavily black neighborhoods placed in the safely Democratic 14th district. In 2012 it voted for President Obama by a 50-percent to 49-percent margin, and it was widely expected that a Republican would have a difficult time holding it once Young, formerly chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, was not running.

Republicans had two further handicaps here. The Democratic nominee, Alex Sink, was pretty well known, having been elected statewide as chief financial officer in 2006 and losing the 2010 governor race to Republican Rick Scott by only 49 percent to 48 percent.

Sink's late husband, Bill McBride, lost the 2002 gubernatorial election 56 percent to 43 percent to incumbent Jeb Bush. The Republican nominee, David Jolly, was a former Young staffer who then worked as a Washington lobbyist, something Democrats made sure to inform voters about. In addition, Democrats outspent Republicans here by something like 3-1 in an expensive media market, according to this account.

I score it as an uninspiring victory for national Republicans and a disappointment for national Democrats. Jolly got the same percentage of the vote, 49 percent, as Mitt Romney won in the district; Sink's 47 percent was below Obama's 50 percent in 2012. Turnout was 55 percent of November 2012 turnout, not an unusual decline for a special election; Jolly's total was 53 percent of Romney's and Sink's 50 percent of Obama's. Jolly naturally campaigned against Obamacare, and a Democratic loss in an Obama district confirms the unpopularity of that legislation. Sink tried campaigning on Social Security and Medicare, Democratic staples which once had a great resonance with St. Petersburg's elderly population. But the district's 65-plus population percentage, 22 percent, is significantly lower than that of several others in Florida, though above the national average. In any case, it doesn't look like Social Security is trumping Obamacare with the elderly.

If this race is an indicator of the November results, it suggests that Democrats will not get the 49-percent to 48-percent edge they got nationwide in the popular vote for the House, and it suggests that they will win somewhat fewer than the 201 House seats they won then. If that’s true, it will be the first time we have had three House elections in a row with similar results, since the string from 1996 to 2004 in which Republicans narrowly won the popular vote and won majorities of seats, but in each case fewer than the 234 they won in 2012.

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Michael Barone

Senior Political Analyst
The Washington Examiner