Why a Florida election has Mitch McConnell's allies smiling

syoungman@herald-leader.comMarch 13, 2014 

More than 800 miles separate Lexington and Tampa, Fla., but Republicans allied with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were beaming Wednesday as though the Sunshine State were just down the road from Keene land.

McConnell allies, like the rest of the political world, were fixated Tuesday night on a special election for the U.S. House of Representatives in Florida's 13th District, looking for clues in the outcome that would tell the tale of this November's election.

That Republican David Jolly, who appeared poised for defeat, was able to beat well-known and well-financed Democrat Alex Sink looked to Team McConnell like a harbinger of good things to come.

Billy Piper, a former top aide to McConnell, said the strategy Republicans used in Florida of tying Sink to President Barack Obama and his health care law showed "proof of concept" that the model can be successful this year in Kentucky.

Piper compared the special election to a similar race in Kentucky in early 1994 when Republican Ron Lewis ran against Democrat Joe Prather in a race to fill the seat left vacant when U.S. Rep. William Natcher died.

Lewis ran away with the race, making former President Bill Clinton the bogeyman in a conservative-leaning district and setting the stage for the Republican revolution later that year.

"It proved to be the blueprint for the entire '94 cycle," Piper said.

To Democrats who say Obamacare won't be nearly as effective against Alison Lundergan Grimes because she wasn't in office to vote for it, Piper notes that Sink "never voted for Obamacare in her life."

"And she was a much more seasoned candidate than the candidate in Kentucky," Piper said.

With great reluctance, Grimes has addressed the health care law similarly to Sink, saying the law should be fixed instead of repealed.

The combination of the president's unpopularity in Kentucky, a health care law widely maligned or misunderstood, and the historical truth that the minority party usually has the upper hand in the midterm elections of a president's second term all make for "prevailing winds" that favor Republicans and will blow in the face of Democrats, Piper said.

"I think that's an inescapable truth that she's going to face on a daily basis," he said. "The Democrats put every ounce of energy into that race. I assumed they were going to win, to be honest, because I didn't think they could afford to lose it."

Worse news for Democrats: Obama won the Florida district in 2012, but he was crushed statewide in Kentucky that year as Republican Mitt Romney won the state with 61 percent of the vote.

Both sides flooded the district with money — all told, an estimated $9 million was spent in the race by both parties — and Sink enjoyed support from Democratic superstars like Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden.

Given the demographics of the district, which is mostly white and leans conservative, and similarities between the Grimes and Sink candidacies, Republicans said the race was a good bellwether for what could happen in Kentucky.

"This election isn't about smoke and mirrors," said Josh Holmes, a top McConnell aide. "It's about whether a candidate will support the Obama agenda in Washington or not, and Alison Lundergan Grimes, like Alex Sink, is recruited and funded by those who want to enact the Obama agenda."

The Grimes campaign did not respond to a request for comment, but the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) said in an news release Wednesday that the result underscored the necessity of the massive voter turnout operation it is trying to build for November.

"The takeaway from the special in Florida is that Democrats will need to invest heavily in a national field program in order to win in November," a DSCC spokesman wrote.

The so-called Bannock Street project the DSCC has launched to boost turnout this year will be key to reversing the sharp turnout decline in Florida between the presidential election and the special election, the committee's email said.

"The (Florida) 13 election really puts an exclamation point on the investment the DSCC is making in trying to impact turnout," the email read.

Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said national parties read far too much into the results of special elections, especially when their side wins.

"Whenever a special election goes in one direction or another, people always try to read out of that grand interpretations for the fall," Voss said.

There "were a number of quirks that aren't going to appear anywhere else" in the Florida election, Voss said.

He noted that how Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear has handled Obama's health care law, winning nationwide praise, could make the state an anomaly on that issue.

Ultimately, Voss said, anybody who thinks a special election in Florida dictates how Kentucky will vote in November "is just trying to read too much into it."

Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com

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