Voters in Florida’s 13th Congressional District are heading to the polls today in a special election to replace the late GOP Rep. Bill Young, who died in October.
By the end of the day, either Democrat Alex Sink or Republican David Jolly will be elected to fill the long-time congressman’s seat. Republicans are aiming to continue their decades-long hold on the district, which includes Pinellas County and parts of St. Petersburg. Democrats, meanwhile, hope to seize the opportunity to break the cycle.
Regardless of who comes out on top, here’s why the election in one Florida district could offer clues about the political climate across the country and what will happen in November.
ANATOMY OF A SWING DISTRICT
As the first Congressional election of the 2014 campaign season, this race has been touted as an indicator of things to come for both parties.
Until his death in October, Rep. Young held the seat for nearly 40 years. Young’s legacy persisted despite the 2012 congressional redistricting, during which Florida’s 13th Congressional District was assigned to encompass Pinellas County and portions of St. Petersburg. The redistricting tides seemed to be shifting toward the end of his tenure.
In the 2012 presidential election, Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in Pinellas County with about 52 percent of the vote, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Given that Pinellas County makes up the bulk of Florida’s 13 Congressional District’s voting bloc, the statistic provides hope for Democrats who are hoping their success in national elections carries over to a more local level.
Meanwhile, Republicans are hoping that the Young legacy persuades voters to maintain the status quo, since the area has been historically dominated by Republicans despite redistricting.
THE VOTING SCENE
Given the district’s long-term voting history, its voters have leaned toward Republicans, which has been helping Jolly with early voting patterns leading into today’s election. However, when it comes to registered voters, Sink may have the edge, with about 225,000 registered Democrats in Pinellas County compared to about 219,000 registered Republicans.
When it comes to demographics, a major focus of this race has been on the 13th Congressional District’s relatively large senior citizen population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 22 percent of the population in Pinellas County are 65 and older. Additionally, the racial breakdown of the district is overwhelmingly Caucasian. Essentially, the outcome of this election (and its impact on other 2014 races) could be determined by a population of retirees.
POWER OF THE PURSE
Campaign spending reached colossal levels in this race, with the combined total raised by both Republicans and Democrats (through individual candidate fundraising and outside group support) totaling more than $12 million.
Though both candidates relied on outside contributions from groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, NRCC, DCCC, American Crossroads and the House Majority PAC, on an individual level, Sink trumped Jolly by raising more than $2.5 million to Jolly’s $1.04 million. Following the numbers provided by OpenSecrets, total outside spending on behalf of each candidate comes to more than $4.3 million. Combined, the overall total amount outside groups spent on Florida’s 13th Congressional District comes to about $8.7 million, an amount that has been popularly rounded up to $9 million for illustrative purposes.
Considering that the winner of today’s election will be holding their Congressional seat until November when the district will have to vote to fill the seat again, the combined amount spent on this race could be illustrated in terms of about $1.5 million per month in office.
A TEST CASE FOR OBAMACARE
The future of the Affordable Care Act permeated the political platforms of both candidates over the course of the past few months, as both Jolly and Sink stood along party lines in their approaches to the controversial legislation.
Jolly established that he would work to repeal the ACA, and Sink repeatedly discussed the simultaneous need maintain ACA while correcting its many problems. The stark difference between these two stances has been fodder for attack ads throughout the race. As a defender of ACA, Sink has been gradually facing more criticism as the race progressed for failing to describe tangible ways in which the legislation should be fixed. On the other end of the spectrum, Jolly found himself on the receiving end of criticism targeting his past as a lobbyist as being an indicator of his inability to have voters’ best interests in mind.
WHAT’S AT STAKE FOR DEMOCRATS
In theory, Alex Sink should have this election in the bag considering the triple threat of her established political brand, long list of notable Democratic endorsements, and deep fundraising pockets. However, she is still competing in a swing district where every vote matters and results are not clear until all of the ballots have been cast. If she wins, Sink will serve as a confidence boost to Democrats in competitive races across the country. Specifically, Sink’s position on the Affordable Care Act will give Democrats the much-needed boost to argue in favor of keeping and fixing the legislation, rather than repealing it altogether. However, if Sink loses, Democrats may have a hard time attributing the outcome to anything other than voter preference since the party basically cleared the field for her campaign. A loss for Sink could signal a ripple effect of potentially problematic messaging issues for Democrats in other competitive midterm elections.
WHAT’S AT STAKE FOR REPUBLICANS
Compared to Sink, Jolly is a newbie on the political scene who trails behind in fundraising capabilities and whose claim to fame is being the adviser to the same congressman he is vying to succeed. That said, Jolly came out on top of a highly competitive primary and continues to stay neck and neck in polling with his Democratic opponent. A win for Jolly could signal the strength of the established Republican brand, while simultaneously demonstrating voters’ preference for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. If Jolly loses, it is very likely that Republicans will attribute the loss to Alex Sink’s fundraising success, rather than Jolly’s policy positions.
THE RISK OF THE OUTSIDER
Lucas Overby, the often forgotten Libertarian candidate in this special election hasn’t been a huge focus throughout the race, but that doesn’t mean his campaign is insignificant. Given the area’s swing district status, a third candidate has the potential to split votes in an already tight voting environment. Overby’s potential impact has not gone unnoticed in the lead up to today’s election. In an attempt to win over Libertarian voters, Sen. Rand Paul took to the phones in an American Crossroads-sponsored robocall on behalf of David Jolly. In the call, Paul attempts to appeal to Libertarian values by mentioning Jolly’s beliefs in “smaller government.”