Jolly Wins Special, Florida’s 13th Starts as Lean Republican for Midterm

Stuart Rothenberg March 11, 2014 · 10:16 PM EDT

Republican David Jolly eked out a narrow win over Democrat Alex Sink to keep the late congressman Bill Young’s seat in the GOP column. Polls had shown the race close, but most observers expected Sink, who lost the governor’s race narrowly in 2010, to defeat Jolly by two or three percentage points.

A former Capitol Hill staffer who became a lobbyist, Jolly had to survive a competitive GOP primary and began the sprint to the special election with little money in the bank. Sink, on the other hand, was handed the Democratic nomination and began the general election with over $1 million in the bank.

While “outside” Republican and conservative groups poured money into the race, erasing Sink’s financial advantage, Sink seemed to have many advantages in the race. (Outside Democratic groups pour money into the race, as well.) She was an experienced campaigner with a unified party behind her, and Barack Obama carried the district twice. And Jolly had more than enough political baggage to make Sink the favorite.

Democratic strategists argued that Republicans had an advantage in the low turnout special election. But calling Florida’s 13th District a “historically Republican district” is a tough pill to swallow after over a decade of Democratic strategists practically guaranteeing victory once Young left the seat.

According to one Democratic consultant, there is no need to overreact to a two-point loss, but there are a couple of potentially important lessons. According to the source, Republicans appeared to have done a better job at pinning down the sample in their polling, compared to Democrats. And Sink was probably a couple weeks late in effectively responding to Obamacare attacks. That’s remarkable considering Democrats should have been more than prepared for those ads.

The Republican special election win doesn’t guarantee anything for November. But it is likely to put Democrats even more on the defensive, undermining grassroots morale and possibly adding fuel to the argument that Democratic dollars should go toward saving the Senate than fighting for the House.

We rated the special election as a Toss-Up throughout race, but now that Republicans won heading into the regular midterm, we’re starting Florida’s 13th District as Lean Republican in the Rothenberg Political Report ratings.