CLEARWATER, Fla. — The candidates are Alex Sink, Democrat, and David Jolly, Republican, but Obamacare is on the ballot in a big way in a competitive House race in Florida that offers a preview of the nationwide campaign for Congress this fall.
Republicans and their allies wouldn't have it any other way as they test the issue's potency, even though their candidate may muddle the message, and other issues like Social Security may command a bigger role in deciding the winner.
"Seniors are losing their doctors because of Obamacare... but Alex Sink still supports Obamacare," read one Republican Party mailer in a congressional district where voters over age 60 may cast more than half the ballots.
Because of the health care law "300,000 Floridians will lose their current health plans, $700 billion (was) cut from Medicare for seniors and now nonpartisan government analysts say Obamacare will cost our economy up to 2.5 million jobs," says an ad paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee. "Yet Alex Sink still supports it."
Sitting in a sparsely furnished room in her campaign office, Sink says of Republicans, "I guess they believe" it will work. "That's their signature issue in this election cycle."
Republicans don't quarrel with that assertion, which makes Sink something of a campaign pioneer — the Democratic candidate in the first race of 2014 to test her party's recommended response to Republican assaults on the health care overhaul that President Barack Obama and Democrats pushed through Congress four years ago.
"We can't go back to letting insurance companies do whatever they want," she says in a television commercial that's recently aired. "Instead of repealing the health law, we need to keep what's right and fix what's wrong."
Says the announcer of Jolly, "His plan would even require seniors to pay thousands more for prescription drugs."
No matter the winner, Democrats appear to have little chance to capture the 17 seats needed to win a House majority in November. Yet this race has drawn national attention also because Obamacare figures prominently already in races in the Senate, where enough seats appear competitive nine months before Election Day to give Republicans an opportunity at winning control.
The candidates took different paths to their March 11 matchup to serve out the term of the late Republican Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young, who died last fall.
Sink, 65, had a career in banking before she was elected the state's chief financial officer in 2006. A longtime resident of Tampa in next-door Hillsborough County, she is attacked by Republicans and their allies as a carpetbagger for moving over the county line into the district in preparation for the campaign.
Jolly, 41, was born in the congressional district. Yet he has long experience in Washington, first as an aide to Young, whom he features in his advertising and public remarks, and then as a lobbyist. Democrats seized on his lobbying work, saying he was retained by a special interest that wants to privatize Social Security.
The race to serve the balance of Young's term has attracted outside groups on the left and the right even though evidence is spotty at best that so-called special elections can predict which party will win a nationwide fall campaign.
Each one "has its own particularly unique and hyperlocal dynamics," said New York Rep. Steve Israel, who heads the House Democratic campaign organization.
And for all the attention paid to Obamacare, Republicans betray concern that Sink's persistent attacks linking Jolly to efforts to privatize Social Security are paying dividends.
The NRCC attacked Sink recently when she made a vaguely positive reference to a bipartisan 2010 deficit-cutting blueprint that proposed gradually raising the Social Security retirement age and slowing the growth in benefits, while also cutting Medicare.
Sink, who did not endorse the plan in her initial remarks, said in a statement: "I am opposed to any changes that would raise the retirement age, reduce the guaranteed Social Security benefit or privatize Social Security in any way."
The slice of Florida that is ground zero in the battle over Obamacare is anything but representative of America. In addition to the presence of tens of thousands of retirees, relatively few blacks or Hispanics live in the district and median income is several thousand dollars below the national average.
That combination might ordinarily tilt the district Republican. Yet while Young carried it with ease, Sink won it in a losing campaign for governor in 2010, and Obama carried it narrowly in 2008 and 2012.
Early voting by mail points to a close race. Throughout this past week, about 63,000 ballots had been returned, slightly more by Republicans than Democrats, with about 15 percent of the total cast by independents.
Nor is it clear what will motivate voters to side with one or the other contender.
Buddie Berger, 93, and a resident of The Palms of Largo, says she's for Sink because "Social Security should not be privatized."
Helen Eden, an even 100, says with a smile she is "not necessarily" going to vote the same way. A Mitt Romney supporter in 2012, she says she is worried about "mainly the budget and our president and how he is bankrupting our country."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Republican Congressional Committee and Jolly have invoked Obamacare in television commercials. "Cancelled health plans, higher premiums, Medicare cuts, people losing their doctors, a disaster for families and seniors," says the announcer in the Chamber of Commerce ad.
In one of his own campaign's ads, Jolly says, "I'm fighting to repeal Obamacare right away."
Private polling in both parties says that while the health care law is unpopular, outright repeal is trumped by a rebuttal like Sink's — that parts must be fixed, but simply eliminating it would empower the insurance industry.
In another ad, Jolly says, "Let's replace Obamacare," a position that is broadened on his campaign website. It says Obamacare "should be repealed now, and then Congress and the administration should begin to consider private sector solutions that address very specific problems in the health insurance industry."