Adam C. Smith: David Jolly's victory spells trouble for Democrats nationwide

David Jolly talks to reporters Tuesday at the Sheraton Sand Key  Resort after after winning former Congressman C.W. Bill Young's seat.
David Jolly talks to reporters Tuesday at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort after after winning former Congressman C.W. Bill Young's seat.
Published March 12, 2014

If I'm a Democratic House member in any competitive district in America or a Democratic incumbent senator up for re-election this year in a moderate-to-conservative state like North Carolina, Arkansas, Colorado, Alaska or Louisiana, I'm waking up more than a little anxious about what happened in Pinellas County on Tuesday.

In Alex Sink, Democrats had a better-funded, well-known nominee who ran a strong campaign against a little-known, second- or third-tier Republican who ran an often wobbly race in a district Barack Obama won twice. Outside Republican groups — much more so than the under-funded Jolly campaign — hung the Affordable Care Act and President Obama on Sink.

It worked.

Sink and Jolly both tried to argue repeatedly that the race to succeed the late C.W. Bill Young had more to do with local politics than it did national. Nonsense.

More than $12 million spent on hundreds of TV ads and Lord knows how many direct mail fliers weren't talking about Pinellas recreation fees and bus routes. They were flooding Pinellas residents with mostly negative attacks about Obamacare and misleading charges about why Sink or Jolly should not be trusted on Medicare and/or Social Security.

Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus had every reason to gloat Tuesday night over Rep.-elect Jolly.

"His victory shows that voters are looking for representatives who will fight to end the disaster of Obamacare, to get Washington to spend our money responsibly, and to put power in the hands of families and individuals," Priebus said. "In November, voters all across the country will have the chance to send the same message that Pinellas County voters have sent: Democrats' policies are not working for America."

Don't be surprised to see vulnerable Democrats across the country start distancing themselves from health care reform in a way that Sink did not.

Nobody seriously expected Democrats to win back a majority in the U.S. House in November, but Sink's loss in a winnable swing district makes Democrats' hold on the U.S. Senate majority look more tenuous than before the special election.

Obama at this point looks like a drag for Democrats in November, just as he consistently has been for Sink.

Four years ago, she narrowly lost a campaign for governor in a tough political climate against a little-known, first-time candidate who cast her as an Obama/Obamacare cheerleader.

This time, she jumped into the race on the heels of a federal government shutdown that seemed likely to seriously damage the Republican brand. Instead, the Obamacare rollout debacle shifted the landscape entirely, and Sink eventually found herself facing another little-known Republican casting her as an Obama/Obamacare cheerleader in a tough political climate.

One big difference between the two Sink races? This time she has little to apologize for. She ran a hyper-disciplined campaign with a far more robust get-out-the-vote effort than Republicans. One can wonder, though, why Democrats waited until after the Republican primary in January to start criticizing the other side. That was the biggest Republican fear.

The state GOP has every reason to cheer its win in a race that early on looked like Sink's to lose. But looking at how effective the Democrats' once-nonexistent absentee ballot program has become ought to make them nervous.

A special election always promised to be tough for Democrats. Given the president's approval ratings, November is likely to be challenging, too, but if Sink opts to run again she at least could be assured a stronger Democratic turnout.

On the other hand, Roll Call has a statistic likely to give the former banking executive pause about taking on Jolly a second time: So far this century, 85 percent of congressional special-election winners win at least two subsequent general elections.

Two invisible political players stand out in this race: Obama and Gov. Rick Scott. Both sides wanted them as far away from Pinellas County as possible.

In their stead, Bill Clinton starred in robocalls for Sink, and Jeb Bush starred in TV ads and mailers for Jolly. Maybe that's yet another sign that Clinton and Bush remain the most formidable names in politics.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at