Republicans win a special election — and complete control of the 2014 narrative

Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama, and Harry Reid

While we should be cautious to read too much into a special election, there’s no denying that the Republican victory last night in Florida’s Thirteenth Congressional District (FL-13) is bad news for Democrats in the 2014 mid-term election, regardless of how they try to deflect it.

The spin from Democrats is that FL-13 had long-been held by Republicans and the district has a Republican tilt, albeit very slight, at R+2. This is true. But talking points miss some very important points.

First, this is a district twice won by President Barack Obama, so it’s more friendly to Democrats than they want to admit. Secondly, Democrats had the money advantage. Alex Sink, who lost last night, overwhelmingly outraised and outspent her Republican opponent, former lobbyist David Jolly, and outside groups backing the Democrat slightly outspent those backing the Republican candidate.

Third, Jolly was a lobbyist, and that point was frequently brought up by Sink and outside groups backing her campaign. Despite being pegged in populist rhetoric as a Washington insider, Jolly managed to win.

Lastly, Obamacare was the single biggest policy issue in the race. Sink generally supported the law, though she acknowledged that fixes were needed. Jolly, however, ran on full repeal of the law. Let’s go over that one more time: a Republican won on a platform of repealing Obamacare in a district twice carried by President Obama.

What does this mean for the 2014 mid-term election? It’s hard to say. Again, it’s was a special election. With that said, Stu Rothenburg, a political analyst for Roll Call, didn’t mince words when he called FL-13 “[t]he race Democrats can’t afford to lose.”

“[S]ince most nonpartisan handicappers and analysts have for years expected this seat to go Democratic when it became open, a Republican victory in March would likely say something about the national political environment and the inclination of district voters to send a message of dissatisfaction about the president,” Rothenberg wrote in an early January column. “And that possibility should worry the White House.”

Now that the race done and over with, the words “bellweather” and “Republican wave” are being tossed around like a baseball at spring training. The latter, in particular, is notable because some political analysts had surmised that 2014 would be a status quo election year. That narrative may now be changing, and it should make vulnerable Senate Democrats very nervous.

“The results are a clear warning sign to Senate Democrats, whose majority is threatened thanks to a Republican-friendly map and a national environment that’s tilted in the GOP’s favor,” writes Josh Kraushaar at the National Journal. “At least seven Democratic-held Senate seats are being contested in states more conservative than the Florida House battleground.”

“Conservative groups, led by Americans for Prosperity, are already airing ads blasting Democratic senators for their support of Obamacare,” he noted, adding, that “their attacks have negatively impacted the incumbents’ poll numbers.”

Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, took it a little further this morning, floating the prospect of a “historic” election on par with the 2010 mid-term, in which Republicans won 63 seats in the House of Representatives and took control of the chamber.

“History shows Obamacare sunk Democrats in 2010,” said Scarborough. “I think we may have something historic here happening, where you have one act actually causing grave damage to a political party two midterms in a row.”

NBC Washington Correspondent Chuck Todd had a slightly different view, though he conceded that the “ingredients are all there for Republicans to have the year that there lookin’ for, which is win enough Senate seats to get control.”

Republicans got what they wanted out of the race: a victory and control of the narrative that 2014 is shaping up to be a disaster for Democrats. But the question is whether Democrats will become dejected and complacent or will they quicky rebound and try to rally their base to avoid the “six-year itch” that traditionally plagues two-term presidents.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. Control of the House isn’t in play, barring some unforeseen event, and the Senate map just isn’t friendly to Democrats. What’s more, President Obama’s unpopularity isn’t helping.

The 2014 mid-term election is far from in the bag for Republicans. But if Democrats deny that last night’s election poses problems for them, especially vulnerable “Red State Democrats,” they’re going to lose — and they’re going to lose in a big way.

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