TALLAHASSEE — The budget shutdown that wounded the Republican brand last week also inflicted pain on the GOP in Florida: the party lost a seat held for decades by Republicans, and Gov. Rick Scott was hit with a hurdle to his re-election strategy.
The governor has spent the past six months distancing himself from his February decision to embrace taking $51 billion from the federal government to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and the disastrous enrollment rollout appeared to help Republicans keep the issue from returning in the next legislative session.
That might have been easy if Republican Bill Gunter had won the House District 36 race. Instead, the Pasco County seat was won by Amanda Murphy, a Democrat and political newcomer with impeccable timing.
The governor stayed away from the race, as polls showed his popularity in the district was painfully low. But, while special elections are rarely bellwethers in Florida, the results suggest that among a significant slice of the electorate, especially independents, support for the Affordable Care Act can be a winning message. That's a troubling sign for Scott, who remains strongly opposed to Obamacare, though he supports taking the federal money.
"What it means in 2014 is the issue of Obamacare is going to be front and center during the legislative session. It's on everybody's minds,'' said Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, the head of the House committee on health care reform and architect of that chamber's hard-line opposition to Medicaid expansion.
Gunter, 43, a Presbyterian minister, was the hand-picked candidate of House Republican leaders and came out forcefully against taking federal money to expand Medicaid. He drew more Republican voters than Murphy drew Democrats, but independents, and moderates who crossed party lines, gave her the victory margin.
Murphy was outspent 3-to-1 yet won on the force of an endorsement from former Rep. Mike Fasano, the populist Republican she replaces in the swing district. He praised her message of moderation on health care reform and education and called Murphy the "independent voice" that would protect "the little gal and little guy."
It was the kind of bipartisan cooperation disgusted voters weren't hearing from Washington. Murphy won by just over 300 votes. She also did something Democrats in Florida had not done before — defeat a candidate who turned out more Republicans than Democrats.
Corcoran, who is slated to become House speaker in 2016, is conducting a "forensic audit" and a post-election poll to analyze the District 36 results. He expects that they will show that while Fasano's endorsement helped Murphy with independent voters, Gunter won voters over age 60 across the board.
For Democrats, the lesson learned last week went beyond health care and offered clues for the governor's race.
Murphy, 43, a financial advisor, reached independents and moderate Republicans by talking about health care and the governor's policies on property insurance and education, said Christian Ulvert, the Democrat's political director. "We learned how to use a governor who is unpopular and who is on the wrong side of policies for a lot of families and used it to open up a conversation with independents."
The race also demonstrated what has been happening across the state: voters are no longer tightly aligned with parties and, with 25 percent of the electorate with no party affiliation, the state is more purple than it has been in decades.
Republicans, who traditionally turn out voters in higher percentages than Democrats, can no longer count on party turnout to win, said Steve Schale, a Democratic political consultant. Murphy's race showed that "moderate Republicans, centrist Democrats and independents are willing to vote for a centrist Democrat,'' Schale said.
In 2012, Obama won the newly drawn swing district by 6 points and in 2010, Scott carried the predecessor district by 1 point.
Fasano's endorsement was powerful "because he said we need more bipartisanship and it came at a time when voters were looking for that," Ulvert said.
Adam Hollingsworth, Scott's chief of staff and campaign adviser, downplayed the significance of the Pasco results, calling it one of many " data points" to analyze the views of Florida voters. "Depending upon where you sit, you can make any number of political observations about that race," he said.
Analysts from both parties now say that health care is likely to play a role in the 2014 election in only a handful of swing districts in the Florida House, a St. Petersburg-based swing district in the Senate — and the governor's race.
"The governor has seen the polls. It's the reason his own position is purple on health care,'' said Linda Quick, president of the Florida Hospital and Healthcare Association which supports Medicaid expansion.
Scott, a former hospital executive, came into office as a staunch opponent of the Affordable Care Act surprised many when in February he announced that he could not "in good conscience, deny uninsured access to care."
The governor said he supported the plan in the state Senate to accept the federal money but his decision was vigorously opposed by conservative Republicans and Tea Party members who had helped Scott into office. He spent no political capital to find a compromise and, after session, he spent the summer reviving the issues that first made him popular with conservatives — from purging the voter rolls, to setting up hurdles for implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
Fasano, who resigned in August to become Pasco County's tax collector, initially promised to be neutral in the race, but he said he got involved when it became clear Gunter "didn't have a clue" about issues such as the nuclear cost recovery fee charged by Duke Energy and the number of working uninsured in the district that could be helped by Medicaid expansion.
Fasano had been the lone Republican in the House last session to support drawing down the $51 billion in federal money over the next 10 years to cover the uninsured.
Fasano lost but extracted his own revenge last week — even spending $1,000 from his own account to pay for five robocalls in support of Murphy.
"The great thing for me was to see that Republicans came out and crossed party lines to vote for somebody they believed would do a better job than the House Republicans are doing now,'' he said.
The challenge now, analysts say, is for Republicans who control the Legislature to avoid being seen as the "Party of No" on health care reform and other issues. Corcoran said he is developing a new version of the House health care plan that relies on private insurers but uses no federal money to expand health care.
Fasano instead has a warning: "If they don't come to the realization that people want to go in a different direction, they're going to lose more House seats in 2014."
Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas