Campaign 2010

Mar 11, 2014

MEMO: In Heavily Republican District, Democrats Proved They Can Compete

TO:      Interested Parties

FR:      DCCC Communications

DT:      March 11, 2014

RE:      In Heavily Republican District, Democrats Proved They Can Compete

Key point:

  • Despite Republicans spending millions to salvage a district they have held for six decades, Republicans underperformed because the only message they offered voters – repealing the ACA – is out of touch and failed to bring them close to their historically wide margins.
  • The FL-13 electorate doesn’t reflect the general election landscape Democrats will face in November and tilted heavily Republican in this low-turnout special election, with public polling showing a 13-point party-ID advantage for Republicans among likely voters.

Over the last decade, Republicans have won this congressional seat by an average of nearly 30 points. In a special election with an electorate tilted heavily for Republicans, Democrat Alex Sink came closer to victory than any Democrat in decades – especially with 10 Republican outside groups spending $5 million in the race. Sink proved that even in this challenging environment, Democrats can not only put the race in play but can compete for the seat in the friendlier midterm environment in less than eight months.

And the lesson from special elections is clear: the results don’t predict a party’s success in the November elections, and the FL-13 race is no exception.

  • In the 2006 cycle, Democrats lost every competitive special election, and went on to pick up 31 seats and gain the majority.
  • In the 2010 cycle, when House Democrats would lose 63 seats and control of the chamber in the fall, they won every single competitive special election leading up to November.
  • As NRCC Chairman Greg Walden said the morning of the race: “Whether we win it or lose it, the special elections aren’t too predictive for either side going forward.” [Los Angeles Times, 3/11/14]

Ultimately, the overwhelmingly Republican composition of the special election electorate – expected to be 13 points more Republican than Democratic – paired with nearly $5 million in spending from 11 Republican groups made for a far steeper challenge than any midterm battleground district will be in November, including in FL-13.


The demographics in the special election in FL-13 look nothing like the districts in which Democrats will compete in the midterms.

“The 13th is not a demographic microcosm of the country. […] Public polling has shown an electorate that would tilt between 8 and 13 percentage points toward the GOP. And Republicans have returned more absentee ballots than Democrats. Voting by absentee is the dominant way of casting ballots in the district.” [Washington Post, 3/10/14]

“The race’s landscape, however, is a challenging one for Democrats. The district, which is made up almost exclusively of white voters and has a slight GOP registration advantage, has long tilted conservative.” [Politico, 3/11/14]

The demographics of the FL-13 special electorate could not be further from a typical battleground district – it’s less diverse than any other comparable district, even more so than the 2010 electorate.

  • In the 2010 election, national exit polling showed that 21 percent of voters were older than 65; voters in that age category are expected to make up approximately 40 percent of the vote in the FL-13 special.
  • In 2010, white voters made up 77 percent of the national electorate; white voters made up 90 percent of the electorate in FL-13 in the 2012 presidential race.



While special elections draw plenty of national attention, history shows that there is no pattern of these specific elections predicting November’s winners.

In fact, in the spring of 2010 a similar special election played out in PA-12, following Representative John Murtha’s death. Leading up to the May election, pundits called the race a bellwether – the Washington Post wrote that “the race is simply a must-win” for Republicans, and FiveThirtyEight wrote that the district “is precisely the sort of district Republicans have in their sights for 2010.” Democrat Mark Critz won the special election. Instead of being a harbinger of Democratic success, the victory was soon forgotten in November.

This year is no different, as many observers have already acknowledged.

The Rothenberg Political Report wrote of the election:

“This race will tell us a lot about party messaging, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us about the efficacy of the message next November. As one veteran consultant explained, the special election environment is less cluttered and so it is easier to respond to volatile issues, such as Obamacare. It’s important to remember that special elections don’t necessarily forecast the future.”  [11/26/13]

Bloomberg wrote:

“Special elections simply don’t predict very much about the upcoming election cycle results […] Put it all together and drawing conclusions from one special election about how issues, or campaign messages, will play in November is basically a fool’s errand.”



Alex Sink ran a strong campaign as a reasonable, commonsense leader who will bring people together and worked hard to outraise her opponent, but Republican outside groups desperately spent $5 million and ultimately evened out the total spending in the race. Republicans played big to hold a seat they’ve won with 30-point margins for nearly six decades.

In total, 11 Republican groups buoyed David Jolly’s lackluster fundraising by outspending their Democratic counterparts by $1.2 million. According to the latest FEC reports, Republican groups and their spending include:

  • National Republican Congressional Committee:            $2.2 million
  • U.S. Chamber of Commerce:                                     $1.2 million
  • American Action Network:                                          $473,000
  • American Crossroads:                                              $471,000
  • Republican Party of Florida:                                      $214,000
  • YG Network, Inc.:                                                    $209,000
  • NRA:                                                                     $122,000
  • Republican Mainstreet Partnership PAC:                     $23,000
  • National Right to Life:                                               $23,000
  • Conservative Strikeforce                                            $4,375
  • Susan B. Anthony List:                                              $1,763

In the end, massive spending by outside groups in a district with a conservative electorate was able to secure a Republican victory that has no larger meaning for the 2014 midterm elections.

House Democrats are in a strong position for success in November, with 19 districts in the battle-tested Red-to-Blue program, and another 16 named as Emerging Races with the potential to become competitive. The open-seat battlefield also continues to tilt in Democrats’ favor, with 10 open-seat opportunities for Democrats to gain seats, compared with only three for Republicans.