As one of Florida's most accomplished businesswomen and most prominent Democrats running against little-known Republican lawyer and lobbyist David Jolly, the special election to succeed the late C.W. Bill Young in Congress should be Alex Sink's to lose.
And not for one second should you underestimate her ability to do just that over the next 56 days.
As in 2010 when she barely lost the gubernatorial race to Rick Scott, Sink faces a national political climate in this race sure to be dominated by national issues — especially an unpopular Affordable Care Act — and millions of dollars in national money. On top of that Sink, 65, seems to find campaigning as enjoyable as a root canal.
As Florida's chief financial officer, Sink would freeze and then awkwardly flee when faced with unwelcome reporters' questions.
As the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 2010, she was caught violating the rules during a CNN/Tampa Bay Times televised debate by receiving text message talking point tips from a lobbyist supporter. Sink managed to make the robotic Rick Scott look warm and fuzzy by comparison in those debates.
What's your biggest regret? Sink and Scott were asked at one point.
"I think about the future. I think about — I'm thinking about the future of Florida and what I can do for Florida people, putting them back to work," Sink intoned.
Scott: "I would have more kids. I love my daughters. I would have had three or four."
MSNBC's The Daily Rundown show declared Sink the single worst candidate of 2010.
"Think about it: You lost to a guy who defrauded Medicare — in Florida! Okay? More people on Medicare perhaps in the state of Florida per capita than maybe any other state," host Chuck Todd marveled.
Running for Congress in one county is a lot easier than running for governor in 67 counties, of course.
But in her first high-profile campaign appearance as a Pinellas congressional candidate, a December Suncoast Tiger Bay luncheon, Sink was her usual, hyper-cautious self: Two of the three people she called on for questions were elected Democratic officials/friends sitting at her table.
The good news for Democrats is that this election won't be decided by personal skills on the campaign trail.
It largely will be decided by millions and millions of dollars in TV ads and mail pieces, and this could be a race where Democrats outspend Republicans. Much of the coming campaign will be outside the control of Sink and Jolly, because outside groups are likely to pound the airwaves at least as much as the candidates themselves.
This is not just another congressional election. Congressional District 13 is the ultimate swing district, and both national parties will cast it as a national barometer of the nation's political mood.
When the winner is declared on March 11, either national Republicans will crow about how Obamacare dooms Democratic prospects in 2014 or Democrats will declare that the early political narrative of 2014 is off base and that neither President Barack Obama nor the Affordable Care Act are real liabilities in the midterms.
Democrats have an uphill climb winning back the U.S. House, needing to gain a net 17 seats. If they can't win a special election in a Pinellas congressional district that Obama won twice and where they have a top-tier Democratic nominee running against an obscure Republican nominee, nobody will see them having a shot at regaining the House.
"A loss in the competitive March 11 contest would almost certainly be regarded by dispassionate observers as a sign that President Barack Obama could constitute an albatross around the neck of his party's nominees in November," the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report noted Monday, calling the race a must-win for Democrats. "And that could make it more difficult for Democratic candidates, campaign committees and interest groups to raise money and energize the grass roots."
Republicans point to internal polling that shows the Affordable Care Act as toxic in District 13, especially among seniors who are the most reliable voters. Nearly half the residents of the district are at least 50 years old, and nearly a quarter are at least 65. These anti-Obamacare seniors will have an outsized role in picking the winner of this special election.
Jolly, 41, handily won the GOP nomination after not only raising more money to advertise heavily than Kathleen Peters and Mark Bircher, but consistently showing at political forums that he was better informed. No question, he was the strongest candidate in terms of substance and political savvy.
Still, Democrats are thrilled to be running against a federal lobbyist who staked out the hard right in the primary, touting his support for restricting abortions and opposing Florida accepting federal funds to provide a million Floridians with health insurance.
The primary proved to be a good thing for Jolly, a rookie who faced two weak and underfunded candidates while gearing up for the real battle that begins today. Sink would be wise not to underestimate him.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]