A Really Not-So-Special Special Election in Florida

It seems that with every election these days, the media uses them as some means to divine the political direction of this country. For example, as predicted, the Christie gubernatorial victory coupled with the Cuccinelli loss in Virginia was seized upon by so-called political experts who pronounced that the way forward for the GOP was some formula developed in New Jersey that centered on moderation. As I have noted here in the past, had the Libertarian candidate in Virginia performed to their historical average, then we would be talking about a Governor Cuccinelli today. There will be plenty of opportunity over the coming year to discuss the viability of a Christie 2016 presidential run and that is not the point of this article.

Instead, the liberal press from Slate to the Washington Post, The Nation, DailyKos, Huffington Post and New York Times (among others) are already touting the special election in Florida’s 13th Congressional District early this year. It is being touted as an indicator of how the midterms will play out later in 2014. This seat became open when incumbent Republican Bill Young died in October. Lost in the cacophony of noise is the fact that had Young not passed away, he was not going to seek reelection in 2014 regardless. Instead of talking about the “importance” of this race in January, we would have been talking about it in October; we simply moved the talk up by some nine months. It should also be noted that whoever wins the special election will have to turn around and run again in November. That is, the victory may be short lived.

What has piqued the interest of the liberal media is the fact that Young had won this district in 2012 even though Obama won the district on the presidential side. And, indeed, he did win the district- by a mere 1%. Overlooked by all these experts is the fact that in the current incarnation of the 13th District or its equivalent prior to the 2010 redistricting, a Democrat had not represented it since 1973.

The current 13th District is located exclusively in the growing Pinellas County whereas previously it was spread over six counties. The county itself is home to a population of over 921,000 people with its key cities being Clearwater and St. Petersburg. To Democrats, they view this district (which is essentially the county) as a mirror of if not Florida, then the United States. Demographically, 82% of the county/district is white, 10% black and about 8% reporting they are of Hispanic descent.

Young won his election in 2012 rather easily. And, yes, the district went for Obama in 2012. But, Democrats and liberals are comparing an apple to an orange. The previous alignment of the 13th District incorporated not only parts of Pinellas County, but also parts of DeSoto, Sarasota, Hardee and Manatee counties. When spread over these other counties, the 13th District delivered a larger margin of victory to Obama than the newer, more compact, exclusively Pinellas County incarnation of the 13th.

However, even though the 13th District went for Obama in 2012, Pinellas county itself gave Obama a 5-point advantage. But, this was a decrease from 2008 when Pinellas county gave Obama a 9 point advantage. Therefore, I believe the more important factor here is the trend away from Obama and, by extension, Democrats. If you look at Pinellas County itself in perspective, the last time it went strongly for a Republican candidate was with George H.W. Bush in 1988. Even after that victory, which was 16 points for the GOP, the biggest Democratic advantage in Pinellas County after 1988 was Obama’s nine point advantage in 2008 (which dropped to a 5-point advantage in 2012). Therefore, using these figures it becomes obvious that a victory either way here will not foretell the fortunes of either party come November, 2014 because except in certain years neither party can “claim” the county strongly. No matter which party wins Pinellas County, the margin of victory is rarely in double digits.

It may be true that in the long term this district will play an important role in maintaining a majority in the House. It is rightfully considered one of the best bellweather counties not only in Florida, but perhaps in the entire country. That being said, we have not even had the primary yet (it is set for January 14) and already the liberal press is heralding the outcome as predictive of Democratic fate in the midterms. Even if the likely Democratic nominee- former gubernatorial candidate in 2010- Alex Sink wins, perhaps a greater indicator will be the win margin. Sink is the choice of the Democratic establishment as she cleared the field with her entrance into the race.

On the GOP side, two candidates have emerged- Kathleen Peters and David Jolly. Originally, it was believed that GOP strategist Nick Zoller would enter the race. In the past he has worked on the campaigns of Saxby Chambliss in Georgia and Scott Brown in Massachusetts. However, he has declined and will instead likely run in the November general election should Alex Sink win. It will be interesting to watch Zoller should the GOP prevail in the special election. Although he has stated this was his intention all along, another important fact keeps him from running in the special election- he will not be 25 until late October. Still, he is a name to watch this year. Kathleen Peters is a state representative and former mayor. David Jolly is a lobbyist and was general counsel to the late Congressman Young. He allegedly has the endorsement of the Young family and will be the likely winner to take on Sink.

The key factor to remember here is that whoever wins the race, it will not be predictive of events in November, 2014. Eight months can be an eternity in politics. If Sink wins and then repeatedly sides with the more unpopular policies of Obama while in Congress, this can be an albatross around her neck come November. Incumbency can certainly have its advantages, but in a toxic political environment where Congress is less popular than the president, people will not remember that Sink was in Congress only eight months. Conversely, should the Republican win, they will also have that built-in disadvantage. It should be remembered that this area is rich in military personnel and the health care industry is very big in Pinellas County. With Obamacare expected to dominate the political landscape through 2014, the winner will have to tread softly and deftly. How they actually govern will be more indicative of November, not their victory in a special election.

In summary, Alex Sink may win the special election, but the victory may be short-lived. This race is reminiscent of the special election in upstate New York when Kathleen Hochul won a special election only to be defeated in the general election months later by a Republican in one of these “bellweather” districts. Like now, Democrats and liberals were heralding that victory also as indicative of the next midterms where Democrats would make great gains in the House. In the subsequent November midterm election, the Dems not only did not make great gains, Hochul lost her reelection bid. Political experts and pundits will focus on this race because in the doldrums before general election primaries, it is the only game in town on which to expound on one’s punditry.