Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Not-So-Special Special Election

What is there to be made of the results of today's special election to fill the vacancy in Florida's 13th District?

Even though I know that, in the days ahead, both parties will spin the outcome in the direction that makes them look better than the other, I'm inclined to think there isn't a lot to conclude. Someone had to win, but I think it is more of a draw more than anything else.

There's some good and some bad for everyone.

The election — to fill the vacancy left by the death last October of Bill Young, who held the seat more than 40 years and for whom the winner, Republican David Jolly, served as general counsel — didn't really tell us much. The polls closed there a couple of hours ago, and it is already known that, with 100% of the precincts reporting, Jolly received 48.5% of the vote, Democrat Alex Sink received 47% of the vote and Libertarian Lucas Overby took 5%.

Republicans will say that this is proof that Democrats will struggle under the burden of Obamacare this year — and perhaps that is true, although you really can't draw that conclusion based on the results of one special election for a seat that has been held by Republicans for decades.

Another Republican was elected to complete the current two–year term, but his support level was far below his predecessor's — ever. Even when Republicans were getting hammered nationally in 1974, the year Richard Nixon resigned, Young, then a two–term congressman, received in excess of three–fourths of the vote.

Young, as I mentioned before, was more of a centrist than most of his Republicans colleagues are perceived to be.

The results did indicate a certain amount of loyalty to the deceased congressman. And, if the Libertarian had not been on the ballot, it is conceivable that Jolly would have received a majority of the vote. But even if Jolly had swept all of Overby's votes, he would not have matched Young's performance in 2012 — or in any other election since 1970.

Before the election, Democrats wanted people to believe the times they are a–changin' in Florida's 13th. Perhaps they are. But that, too, is far from clear.

Barack Obama carried the district in 2008 and 2012, and Democrats were hopeful that this was indicative of a permanent shift. But I'm inclined to see it as proof that, while Young's district is a reasonably reliable bellwether for national politics, it isn't necessarily so on the congressional level.

Young won 22 consecutive elections, even in years that weren't good for Republicans nationally; while Young's constituency did change as district lines were redrawn every 10 years, the same voters that sent Young to Congress voted for nine of the winners in the 11 presidential elections that were held during Young's tenure (10 winners if you count Al Gore's popular vote victory over George W. Bush in 2000).

The real bottom line for Democrats is that they still need 17 seats to grab a narrow majority in the House. They had hoped to bring the number down to 16, which would have been a steep uphill climb as it was. It will be harder still to find that 17th seat this November.

Republicans are likely to retain their advantage in the House. Currently, most observers see little, if any, movement in the midterm elections this fall.

But what do the results of today's election tell us about the Republicans' prospects for winning the six seats they need to wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats? Nothing, really. There is no Senate race in Florida this year so the outcome tells us nothing of value about whether Republicans are likely to win enough seats to gain control of the chamber for Obama's last two years in the White House.

This early in the cycle, though, it seems to me there isn't much that can be known for certain. Nearly eight more months will pass before the midterm elections are held, and there many things that can happen in that time.

But history suggests — and today's results may well confirm — that the political landscape will not be favorable to the president's party.

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