1. Opinion

Editorial: Special election sends a message to Tallahassee

Democrat Amanda Murphy's narrow victory in the Florida House District 36 special election is a repudiation of Tallahassee special interests and reflects the disconnect between Republican legislative leaders and their Pasco County neighbors on health care and education. It is only one election with a low turnout, but it could be the canary as Republicans head into the 2014 election cycle with an unpopular governor and a Legislature that does not reflect mainstream Florida.

Despite the substantial financial commitment to Republican candidate Bill Gunter from the state Republican Party, lobbyists and third-party campaign committees, Murphy narrowly won in this west Pasco swing district in an election that drew less than 20 percent of the registered voters. She won by emphasizing the consumer advocacy that mirrored the priorities set by her popular predecessor, former Republican Rep. Mike Fasano. He resigned in August to become Pasco's tax collector and later crossed party lines to endorse Murphy and campaign on her behalf.

By electing a Democrat as their state representative for the first time in 15 years, the voters who turned out made a statement against the Legislature's cruel refusal to expand Medicaid and deny health coverage to 1 million Floridians. Gunter parroted House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and future Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, in opposing Medicaid expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act, which would provide health coverage to 150,000 people in the Tampa Bay region and nearly 30,000 Pasco residents. It emerged as the central issue late in the campaign with Gunter sending recorded telephone messages to voters tying Murphy and Fasano to the Affordable Care Act. Murphy supports accepting $51 billion in federal money over the next 10 years to expand Medicaid, and her victory suggests Weatherford's rigid ideology is not embraced by centrist voters in his home county, much less in Florida.

Murphy also wants to increase state funding for traditional public education, and she supports the Common Core academic standards. Gunter had advocated funneling more money to high-performing schools, and he refused to commit to the Common Core standards that are being inaccurately characterized as a federal intrusion into local teaching.

Gunter, 43, a Presbyterian minister, was making his second run for public office, having lost a County Commission race in 2012. Murphy, 43, a financial adviser and vice president at Raymond James & Associates, was in her first campaign. Her election should demonstrate to both political parties the limited value of recycling familiar names from past campaigns and the importance of identifying and recruiting smart candidates who are successful in their careers and committed to their communities.

Murphy narrowly won a competitive district, and this is only one special election. Republicans still hold a 75-45 advantage in the Florida House, and they are in no danger of losing control with so many safe districts. But Murphy's election in a swing district long held by Republicans, who spent considerable time and money trying to keep it, sends a message for 2014. The Florida House is more conservative than the state overall, and its most extreme positions are out of step with more centrist voters.